Cod: A Biography of a Fish that Changed the World
© 1997 Mark Kurlansky
In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky detailed the surprisingly impactful career of a table condiment on human history. The importance of salted fish, both as food and as an industry, popped up again and again, not surprising given that five years earlier Kurlansky had penned an entire book on cod. For coastal peoples, fishing is more than a leisure sport done at the river; it is the sustenance of life itself, the foundation of regional economies. North Atlantic cod have been especially important in this regard, keeping food on the table in England, Spain, Iceland, and New England. Town seals featured the codfish prominently; in Boston, an artifical one hung from the rafters of city hall. In the mid-20th century, several European powers engaged in “cod wars” in which their commerical and quasi-military coast guards grappled with one another, ramming their ships and cutting trawl lines. They were fighting not just to ensure that their respective nations got a good piece of the cod pie, but that the pie would be there in the future. This history of cod has an ecological point, for man’s rapacious appetitite and creative gift for fashioning technology to maximize yields has frequently driven populations into peril. Cod demonstates the problem of the commons, in which resources held in public are abused and exhausted; not until nations began aggressively quartering off sections of the ocean and fighting off the competition were populations of the fish possible to measure and protect. Despite moratoriums and restrictive quotas, the codfish have not rebounded as quickly as expected; their future seems to lie in ‘farms’ (like catfish ponds), a somewhat depressing spectre.
Russ Roberts of EconTalk interviewed the CEO of a seafood restaurant enterprise this past Monday, discussing the problems of the fish industry today. He followed it today with a podcast on the oyster business. (Roberts has also interviewed people about the potato chip and bottled milk businesses.)