30 July 2022

Seals vs. Cod

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 200-202:

Marine ecology is complex and tightly interwoven. When large factory ships in the North Sea overfish sand eels and other small fish that are ground into fish meal for heating fuel in Denmark, not only cod but seabirds go hungry. In 1986, seal herds ranged south in the North Sea and ate the coastal fish off of Norway because they were famished from the overfishing of capelin. Fishermen were calling for a seal hunt to save the North Sea fisheries from the seal. In 1995, both Norway and Canada rescinded their ban on seal hunting because the populations were growing and they eat cod.

In the late 1950s, Canada’s seal hunt had become a target of environmentalists when high prices for seal pelts and a huge herd had drawn packs of ruthless, unskilled amateur hunters with helicopters to the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. In 1964, the anger of animal lovers throughout the world was stirred by a film made by Artek, a Montreal film company, that depicted a seal being skinned alive. The international protest did not abate when it was revealed that the skinner had been paid by the film company and that two of the other “hunters” turned out to be part of the film crew. In 1983, after intensive pressure from environmental groups culminated with a European Community boycott of seal products, Canada finally banned seal hunting, a traditional activity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Not surprisingly, the 1995 reopening of the seal hunt met with national and international condemnation from environmentalist and animal-rights groups. The seal defenders claimed that there was no scientific basis for the seal hunt. Some even denied that seals eat cod. Before protecting the seal became a cause célèbre, everyone in Newfoundland knew that seals ate cod. The familiar label of the leading Newfoundland soft-drink company, G. H. Gaden, is a seal on an ice floe with the words keep cool. But in the less politically correct nineteenth century, a cod was in the seal’s mouth.

According to the Canadian government, the seal-hunting ban caused the harp seal population to double to 4.8 million, and if the ban had not been rescinded, it would be expected to be at 6 million by 2000. Seals eat enormous quantities of fish and are particularly disliked by fishermen because they are wasteful. Like the average North American consumer, gray, harbor, and harp seals do not like to deal with fish bones. They tear into the soft belly of the cod and leave most of the rest. “Seals don’t have to eat a lot of cod to have a big impact,” said George Rose. “It doesn’t mean we have to declare war on the seal. But we have to control the seal population.” One Canadian journalist, recalling Brigitte Bardot’s 1977 campaign in which she posed on an ice floe with a stuffed baby seal, suggested that the French actress pose hugging a codfish.

Given the interdependence of species, the fundamental question is whether other species—not just the seals but the phytoplankton, the zooplankton, the capelin, the seabirds, and the whales—will wait fifteen years for cod to return. Nature may have even less patience than politicians. “Whatever will work is going to work. It will not necessarily come out the same way,” said Rose. If the species that were eaten by cod become plentiful because the cod are not there to prey on them, other species may move in, and if the intruders are successful, there might not be enough food to support a large cod population again. Some biologists worry that rays, skates, and dogfish, which are small sharks, may already be moving in.

In addition, an unwanted relative has already shown up: the arctic cod (Boreogadus saida). This may not be bad for the marine ecology, but it is very bad news for fishermen. Arctic cod are about eight inches long and until now have been deemed of little commercial value. Because they are a much smaller fish, the adults do not compete with the Atlantic cod for food, but the young do. Even worse, arctic cod eat Atlantic cod eggs and larvae.

26 July 2022

Overfishing Problems Worldwide

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 198-200:

Overfishing is a growing global problem. About 60 percent of the fish types tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are categorized as fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. The U.S. Atlantic coast has witnessed a dramatic decline in the bluefin tuna population, though Gloucester fishermen refute this on the grounds that they still have good catches. Mid-Atlantic swordfish stocks are diminishing. Conch and redfish are vanishing from the Caribbean. Red snapper, which is a by-catch of shrimp, is in danger of commercial extinction in the Gulf of Mexico. Peru is losing its anchovy population. Pollock is vanishing from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. With 90 percent of the world’s fishing grounds now closed off by 200-mile exclusion zones, fishermen have been searching greater depths for new species. Little is known about the ecology of these depths, but since they often have very cold water, reproduction is probably very slow. Orange roughy was introduced to the world markets after implementation of the 200-mile zone and immediately gained such popularity that five tons an hour were being hauled up from the depths near New Zealand. In 1995, the catch nearly vanished.

The collapse of the Soviet Union destabilized many fishing agreements. Russia has become a major cod fisher, and cod has become almost the equivalent of cash in the Russian Barents Sea fishery. The reason the Canadians have been buying Russian cod processed in Norway is that Russia has been flooding the Norwegian market.

With the Atlantic long overworked by Europeans, the action has been switching to the Pacific, where not only are there large Japanese, Russian, American, and Korean fleets, but the Chinese, who do not have a history of international cooperation, have been notably enlarging their fishing capacity.

Replacing the Atlantic with Pacific fisheries is an old idea. Pacific cod was one of the reasons the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. But since the major markets were far away along the Atlantic, the Pacific cod did not have the same success as the Atlantic cod. Nevertheless, in 1890, a half million Pacific cod were landed. An 1897 book by an American scholar, James Davie Butler, suggested that with the alternative of a Pacific cod fishery, the only remaining bone of contention between the United States and Canada, cod fisheries, would be less important, and the way would now be cleared for “eventual union with Canada.”

But the Pacific cod is a different fish, its flesh less prized. It does not migrate, and it does not appear to live more than twelve years. More important, the catch has never measured up to that of its Atlantic cousin. Instead, walleye pollock has become the prize of the northern Pacific, “the cod of our times,” as a Gorton’s employee put it, and that fish is becoming so overfished that not only its stocks but its predators, sea lions and several species of seabirds, have dramatically declined since the mid-1970s.

24 July 2022

New England's Codfish Aristocracy

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 78-80:

By the eighteenth century, cod had lifted New England from a distant colony of starving settlers to an international commercial power. Massachusetts had elevated cod from commodity to fetish. The members of the “codfish aristocracy,” those who traced their family fortunes to the seventeenth-century cod fisheries, had openly worshiped the fish as the symbol of their wealth. A codfish appeared on official crests from the seal of the Plymouth Land Company and the 1776 New Hampshire State seal to the emblem of the eighteenth-century Salem Gazette—a shield held by two Indians with a codfish overhead. Many of the first American coins issued from 1776 to 1778 had codfish on them, and a 1755 two-penny tax stamp for the Massachusetts Bay Colony bore a codfish and the words staple of Massachusetts.

When the original codfish aristocrats expressed their wealth by building mansions, they decorated them with codfish. In 1743, shipowner Colonel Benjamin Pickman included in the Salem mansion he was building a staircase decorated with a gilded wooden cod on the side of each tread. The Boston Town Hall also had a gilded cod hanging from the ceiling, but the building burned down, cod and all, in 1747. After the American Revolution, a carved wooden cod was hung in the Old State House, the government building at the head of State Street in Boston, at the urging of John Rowe, who, like many of the Boston revolutionaries, was a merchant. When Massachusetts moved its legislature in 1798, the cod was moved with it. When the legislature moved again in 1895, the cod was ceremoniously lowered by the assistant door-keeper and wrapped in an American flag, placed on a bier, and carried by three representatives in a procession escorted by the sergeant-at-arms. As they entered the new chamber, the members rose and gave a vigorous round of applause.

23 July 2022

Different Markets for Cod

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 104-105:

From the Middle Ages to the present, the most demanding cod market has always been the Mediterranean. These countries experienced a huge population growth in the nineteenth century: Spain’s population almost doubled, and Portugal’s more than doubled. Many ports grew into large urban centers, including Bilbao, Porto, Lisbon, Genoa, and Naples. Barcelona in 1900 had a population of almost one million people—most of them passionate bacalao consumers.

But North Americans did not succeed in this market. Though Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia remained almost entirely dependent on fishing, there was little quality and they largely sold to Boston or the Caribbean. The one North American exception was the Gaspé, where a quality Gaspé cure was sold to the Mediterranean. Some 900 years after the Basques won the competitive edge over the Scandinavians by salting rather than just air-drying fish, the Scandinavians became competitive by perfecting salting. Norway and Denmark, which controlled Iceland and the Faroe Islands, moved aggressively into the top-quality Mediterranean markets and have remained.

Even today, with goods and people moving more freely than ever before, most salt cod eaters are attached to the traditional cure of their region. Modern Montreal is a city of both Caribbean and Mediterranean immigrants. At the Jean Talon market in the north of the city, stores feature badly split, small dried salt cods from Nova Scotia and huge, well-prepared salt cod from the Gaspé. The Caribbeans consistently buy the Nova Scotian, while the Gaspé is sold to Portuguese and Italians.

22 July 2022

Dangers of Cod Fishing

From Cod, by Mark Kurlansky (Penguin, 1998), pp. 113-116:

One of the worst enemies of cod fishermen, especially in the days before radio, was fog. Since cod grounds are zones where warm and cold currents meet, fog is commonplace. It can be so thick that the bow of an eighty-foot vessel is obscured from midship. A lantern on the bow cannot be detected 100 feet away. Fishermen drift in a formless gray, tooting horns and blowing whistles, hoping other craft hear them and avoid collision. But the greatest danger was for the dorymen.

From the seventeenth century to the 1930s, the common way to fish for cod and other groundfish was to go out to the Banks in a ship and then drop off small dories with two-man crews. The Portuguese, who were infamous on the Grand Banks for the harshness of their working conditions, used one-man dories. Europeans would cross the ocean in large barks built for deck space and large holds; New Englanders and Nova Scotians went out in schooners that could swiftly run back to shore to land fish; but all the dories were the same: twenty-foot deckless skiffs. The dorymen would generally use oars, and occasionally sail power, but they had to provide their own sails. Often they or their wives made them by sewing together flour sacks.

Being competitive with each other, dorymen sometimes secretively took off to grounds they had discovered. Many dorymen drowned or starved to death or died of thirst while lost in the fog, sifting through a blank sea for the mother ship. They tried to fish until their boat was filled with fish. The more fish were caught, the less sea-worthy the dory. Sometimes a dory would become so overloaded that a small amount of water from a wave lapping the side was all it took for the small boat to sink straight down with fish and fishermen.


To seagoing people of the North Atlantic, the hardships and bravado of dorymen were legendary. In 1876, Alfred Johnson, a Danish-born Gloucester doryman, responding to a dare, sailed his sixteen-foot boat from Gloucester to Abercastle, Wales, in fifty-eight days, the first one-man North Atlantic crossing ever recorded. Nova Scotians still recall a nineteenth-century doryman who was lost in the fog for sixteen hours before being found—the Nova Scotian survival record. But the most famous Nova Scotian doryman was Howard Blackburn, who immigrated to Gloucester. On January 23, 1883, Blackburn and his dory mate rowed away from their ship to longline halibut and became lost in a snowstorm. His mate froze to death, but Blackburn shaped his fingers around the oars so that he would still be able to row after he lost feeling in his hands. He rowed 100 miles and reached Newfoundland with the frozen corpse of his mate on the stern. Though the misadventure cost him all his fingers and most of his toes, he went to sea in sloops designed for his disability, set a thirty-nine-day, one-man Gloucester-to-Lisbon record, and even rowed the Florida coast with oars strapped to his wrists.

Not only dories were lost. Whole ships went down. John Cabot’s was the first of many. The number of Gloucester fishermen lost at sea between 1830 and 1900—3,800—was 70 percent greater than all the American casualties in the War of 1812, and this from a town of about 15,000 people. On February 24, 1862, a gale swept Georges Bank, and 120 drowned in one night. In the 1870s, as schooners became shallower and carried more sails, making them even faster and more beautiful, but much more dangerous, Gloucester losses became horrendous. These shallow, loftily rigged “clipper schooners” did not stand up well in gale winds. In 1871, twenty schooners and 140 men were lost. In 1873, thirty-two vessels and 174 men were lost, 128 of them in a single gale. An easterly gale on the banks in 1879 sunk twenty-nine vessels with a loss of 249 men.

The ports that sent fleets to the Grand Banks held religious ceremonies before the beginning of what was called “the campaign.” In St.-Malo, in late February, fifteen days before the Terre-Neuvas sailed, the cardinal of Rennes came to the port to say mass before the fleet. A wreath was tossed to sea to remember the fishermen who had been lost in previous campaigns.

18 July 2022

Enjoying the Canadian Maritimes

The Far Outliers spent most of July visiting the far side of Canada, the Maritime Provinces of Nova Scotia (NS), New Brunswick (NB), and Prince Edward Island (PEI), all in the Atlantic (Daylight) Time Zone, 7 hours ahead of Hawai‘i. We broke our trip in both directions with overnights in Calgary, Alberta, and had an absolutely splendid road trip around the Maritimes. We arrived in Halifax, NS, on Canada Day, and stopped for (1, 2, or 3) overnights at B&Bs in Lunenberg and Annapolis (Royal) in NS, St. Martins and Hopewell Cape in NB, Charlottetown in PEI, and Baddeck in Cape Breton, then back to Halifax. We put more than 2000 km on our rented Toyota Corolla, enjoying many almost empty two-lane country highways and car-ferry rides from Digby, NS, to St. John, NB, and from Wood Islands, PEI, to Pictou, NS.

The weather was very cooperative, the people were everywhere hospitable, and the Atlantic seafood was a nice variation on our usual seafood-heavy diet. The most unexpectedly spectacular scenic drive that we took was the Fundy Trail Parkway, which was not mentioned at all in our Canadvac suggested itinerary. It was completed in 2020 and became accessible from both ends in 2021. We started from the St. Martins end and stopped many times to view and photograph the beautiful scenery, which exceeded even the Cape Breton Cabot Trail cliffside views between Beddeck and Ingonish. Not far after we exited the eastern park entrance, we turned onto a brand new (2021), nearly empty road to Alma that allowed us to continue on toward Hopewell Cape, hugging the coast along NB Route 915, past Cape Enrage.

We were mostly a party of two (the ideal number), although we joined larger parties for excursions by boat to go whale-watching off Digby Neck in the Bay of Fundy, and to go bird-watching off St. Anns Bay in Cape Breton. We especially enjoyed being just a party of two at an Experience PEI mussel and lobster boil in tiny St. Georges, PEI, with Jim Conohan, a local fisherman, mussel farmer, and raconteur of wide experience who used to host larger parties before Covid.

My best photos and videos from our trip can be seen at Joel Abroad on Flickr.