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The Lowly Cod: A History
of Codfish in Northern New England
By Mark Wiley

Cod. Not the most attractive word
in the English language, and
certainly not the most attractive
fish in the sea. Yet had cod never
inhabited the Gulf of Maine, our history might have been very different.   

Cod first attracted the Europeans to our shores, and some say the fish provided
the motivation and resources to develop such a forbidding land.  

A recent book about the fish,
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by
Mark Kurlansky, provides New Englanders with a perspective of -- and respect
for -- cod many may have lacked.  

Unfortunately, the depletion of cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine and elsewhere
has all but removed cod from our dinner tables and our culture.

Learning about cod isn't just learning about fish.

Cod was like oil today
Cod, like oil today, was once a natural resource of significant political
importance over which wars were fought. In fact, the cod was held in such high
esteem by the founding fathers of Massachusetts that a model still hangs in the
statehouse.

What made cod so valuable was that after it’s properly salted, the flesh has a
long-lasting and good-tasting source of protein. In an era before refrigeration,
this made cod an extremely valuable commodity and for decades, cod from the
Gulf of Maine was considered the finest in the world.

The cod is a type of ground fish, a fish that lives and eats near the bottom of the
ocean and is easily caught by nets called otter trawls dragged along the sea floor.
Cod can reach five to six feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds, though most
cod caught now are significantly smaller. They eat just about anything they can
fit in their mouths.   

The shallow, productive banks of the Gulf of Maine were a prime place to thrive
-- and to get caught.

Historically, cod populations were remarkably large and healthy due in part to
the huge abundance of eggs females can produce and to the ideal habitat
provided by the Gulf.   

Cod population decreasing
So why did the cod population plummet? Ecologists blame a phenomenon
known as the "tragedy of the commons." Like the town common once used for
grazing, cod was a valuable resource freely available to all and like that land in
the center of town, it inevitably became over-exploited.   

To save the resource, restrictions are now in place on cod fishing, and New
England is still reeling from the resulting economic and cultural impacts of those
regulations.

Research, however, is now underway at the University of New Hampshire and
other marine laboratories to rescue New England’s favorite fish.

Biologists and engineers are testing open-ocean aquaculture facilities to grow
cod for market, while others are looking at new ways to catch ground fish that
would significantly reduce the accidental catch of juveniles and non-target
species that occurs with current techniques.   

It appears that help and hope are on the way for cod and other fish of the Gulf of
Maine. With luck, perhaps, restored cod populations will give the lowly cod the
respect it deserves.  

About the author: Mark Wiley is an Extension Specialist at the Marine Science
Education
UNH Cooperative Extension.
drawing courtesy of NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
The Heart of New England
Celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine ~ New Hampshire ~ Vermont
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...celebrating the unique character & culture of Maine, New Hampshire & Vermont!
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