Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Reviewed by Tara Davis



In Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky (1997) spins a refreshingly intimate narrative on the relationship between humans and the environment. He attempts to understand the present by way of the past: what historian March Bloch’s describes as, “the master quality of the historian”.[1] In this light, Kurlansky’s interpretation of the critical events leading to the decline of cod in the 1990s contributes to a necessary dialogue on current sustainability of the marine environment.[2]

In Part One, “A Fish Tale”, Kurlansky addresses how man, “an openmouthed species greedier than cod”, caused the near-extinction of the “common” fish made to “endure”. [3] His first approach is to establish cod as instrumental in laying the foundation of the Trans-Atlantic world. The Vikings air-dried the fish to survive voyages made to America between 985 and 1011, the medieval Basques established themselves as whalers by trading and salt-curing cod, and the British fought the first cod war in 1532. By 1550, sixty percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod and it remained a staple food for 250 years.

Kurlansky reveals how cod fishing territories were the heart of British and French negotiations following the Seven Years’ War. France “held its slave colonies but lost its fisheries” and would subsequently depend on New England cod to feed Caribbean plantation slaves.[4] When Britain attempted to regulate the French molasses trade and the American cod trade in 1733, Kurlansky argues it marked the “first inadvertent step towards dismantling the British Empire”. (99). By the late 1700s, the cod fisheries in New England established a commercial environment of individual economic freedom independent from the British crown. The American Revolution emerged not from a call for political freedom. Rather, the colonists demanded the right to make money via the right to sell cod.

Ultimately, the more experienced, better trained, and “certainly better dressed” British Army lost because the Continental army was better fed and better paid.[5] Following Kurlansky’s narrative thread the reader initially assumes the Continental Army survived on cod, yet this is not the case. Due to the militarization of fishing waters there was “not much cod for anyone”.[6]

In response, Kurlansky explains how cod laid the economic foundation for the production of food for the Continental Army. Here was the fish that had built Boston’s economy. Its financial trail extended far beyond the day’s catch. On a whole, Kurlansky aptly introduces the reader to the “fish that changed the world”, but his representation of cod as the fish that won the revolutionary war is reductionist. While it does lend a new perspective on the conflict, it neglects other reasons for British defeat such as the vast territory the army had to cover in the colonies, so distant from Great Britain. In failing to address the counterarguments of established historians, it is not clear from where Kurlansky’s is drawing his argument.

In Part two, “Limits”, Kurlansky interprets the technological and sociological transition from cod fisherman to industrial worker: from the use of hand lines to trawl lines. Kurlansky contributes to this history by interweaving the human rationality behind every new change in technology. At the turn of the 19th century, the human perception of the abundance of cod dictated alterations within fishing practices. In the Darwinian spirit of the Victorian age, Kurlansky argues, T.H. Huxley served on three British fishing commissions, where he argued that all the herring and cod could never be “fished out”.[7] The number of cod and the prolific number of eggs in an average cod was enough to preclude “all the efforts of man to exterminate it”.[8] Here, Kurlansky could present better examples and could be more explicit in making connections between the Darwinian age its impact on the management of cod. This meeting of micro-history and macro-history does not lend for an argument as persuasive as Kurlansky’s other insights.

Kurlansky also comments on the self-perpetuating relationship between cod populations and technological innovation.  So long as newer fishing techniques yielded bigger catches it did not seem that the stocks were being depleted. Even when local cod populations were in obvious decline, steam ship trawlers expanded into the ocean and returned with bounty. The abundance of fish catches were not related to the population size, so much as they exemplified the efficiency of steam ship trawlers to access untouched, healthy populations in remote waters. By the 1890s, Kurlansky notes, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea. Instead of conservation, “fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland”.[9] While this tactic supplied the international market for a time, it altered marine ecosystem dynamics indefinitely.  In Newfoundland, Canada’s historic fishing province, it left inshore fisherman with dwindling cod populations. In what appeared to local fisherman as a sudden collapse of cod, the fish that had forever been managed as an infinite resource, was in fact, “so rare that it could no longer be considered commercially viable.”[10]

Kurlansky explains how technological innovation was not only to blame; it was simply the tool humans crafted to supply demands for cod. Diesels, trawler nets, bottom draggers, sonar surveillance, and factory ships– all took a toll on the resilience of cod. After the industrial age, what drove the extraction of cod at unprecedented levels was a consumer market predicated on Clarence Birdseye’s invention of frozen foods. Though Kurlansky’s focus on the modern distribution methods is focused, it neglects other reasons for increased cod extraction.  These include the role the advancement of medicine played in drastically increasing the size of population, the post-WWII economic boom, and the overall increase in wealth and prosperity throughout the modern world. All attributed to an increased demand for cod.

In Part Three, “The Last Hunters”, Kurlansky’s stronger argument is found in how he ultimately ascribes the decline of cod to human misperception. These technological transfers are not simply natural, inevitable transitions, rather they were innovations justified within a specific socio-cultural context of guiding policies and practices. In his comparison of Canada and Norway, Kurlansky intimates how past human errors can only aid current natural resource management decision-making. In Norway, the politicians were able to severely limit the catch and change the industry when the fish were still commercially viable. As a result, populations were able to rebound. In Canada, the necessary regulations arrived too late and the fisherman were left to wait.[11] Regardless if the human decisions surrounding cod in Canada were for better or for worse, and it is clear Kurlansky supports the latter, what is hopeful is this element of human agency.

Living in a time of large-scale profit-driven food markets, changing climate, and massive species extinction, Kurlansky’s history lesson is worth applying to contemporary decision making, though it is far from a policy brief.  Cod recipes, dating from the twelfth century to the twentieth century, chronologically break up the chapters. At first, these recipes come across as anecdotal and trite. In Part One, it is not clear how several boiled cod recipes are relevant. The further Kurlansky builds his argument, however, the recipes become shards of evidence of an unimaginable time when cod was, indeed, abundant. They also serve as a constant reminder of the longevity of this staple food in daily life. In the beginning sections of this book, Kurlansky intimates this point, but it is not until the last page of the book that Kurlansky drives his main point and the recipes come to life:

There is a big difference between living in society that hunts whales and living  in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? We know it is hard to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.[12]

The recipes reveal a time when man was intertwined, as oppose to a part from, the natural processes. Cod represented livelihood, sustenance, and ritual.  Throughout the book, we see how cod is transformed from a dish cooked by fishing communities to a pricey specialty prepared by elite cooks. The progression of the recipes cited throughout the book exemplifies the shift from man’s personal relationship with nature to a large-scale dependency on technology. What is strikingly distinct about the last thirty pages of recipes in the book is how the reader realizes they are all written for a ghost fish, and it is not clear if these recipes will be again in the future.

[1] Bloch, Marc. 1953. The historian’s craft. New York: Knopf.

[2] Kurlansky, Mark. 1997. Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. New York: Walker and Co, 43.

[3] Kurlansky, 45.

[4] Kurlansky, 88.

[5] Kurlansky, 98.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kurlansky, 121.

[8] Kurlansky, 108.

[9] Kurlansky, 132.

[10] Kurlansky, 186.

[11] Kurlansky, 193.

[12] Kurlansky, 233.

One response to “Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, Reviewed by Tara Davis”

  1. Griffin Smith says:

    Hi Tara,
    I liked your review and how you discussed the author exaggerating cod’s importance. It reminded me of a part in Moby Dick where Ishmael claims that most exploration came from whaling expeditions, as a way of justifying the trade. The way Kurlansky described the fishing industry certainly seemed as though he wanted to push an agenda by explicitly exaggerating the influence of the fish. As for his analysis that this was a cause of the American Revolution I agree that this is highly reductionist. The restriction of trading cod can at best be seen as a microcosm of how merchants were worried about the enforcement of the navigation acts, but this would have only been a concern of merchants.

    I would agree with your analysis that the author definitely wanted to depict this as a historical lesson, and wanted to show the extent of overfishing by making cod seem as important as possible. I feel like it would have been interesting if you discussed if by trying to prove this historical lesson, he may have negatively affected the narrative’s accuracy. I myself have doubts as to whether a nuanced narrative is possible if there is a moral lesson being considered in its creation. Overall I really liked your review on the cod trade!

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