Book Review

To the Overfisher Go the Spoils: A Review of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod

After reading this book, you’ll never look at cod the same way again. Friedman Sprout co-editor Sam Jones reviews Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

When you think of cod, if you ever give it any thought at all, you might first think of fish and chips. The phrase “cod is king” may even pop into your head, even if you don’t know why. Colonialism, war, and slavery, however, likely do not enter your mind as having anything to do with that mild, white-fleshed ground fish. Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World traces the history of a species that has more to do with the dominance of North America on the world stage than it does with restaurant menu items. Published in 1997, Cod offers a lesson to its readers about what happens when humans consider themselves separate from nature. It is a lesson even more relevant today than it was two decades ago.

Cod begins with a prologue set during the present day (as of its writing in 1997) in Petty Harbor, a once-robust fishing community in the Newfoundland region of Canada. The Canadian government had recently placed a moratorium on cod fishing, which the fishermen Kurlansky speaks with say has turned their hometown into a ghost town. The painful outcome of centuries of excessive cod fishing by nations far and wide sets the stage for Kurlansky’s riveting and refreshingly unbiased historical exploration of what he calls “a 1,000-year fishing spree” (p. 14).

Kurlansky’s storytelling hooks the reader in and brings them to a world of harrowing seafarers and Icelandic harpooners, travelling from Basque country to Boston, Massachusetts to slave plantations in French and British colonies. He covers ten centuries of cod’s history, delving into its role in establishing New World colonies and bolstering North America’s role as a leader in production and trade.

For most of the book, Kurlansky focuses on the eastern coast of North America where European explorers were establishing their new colonies. By the mid-1620s, the British Empire already demanded enough cod to fill fifty ships. Cod was not only traded with the British crown, but also among communities in Newfoundland and New England as the seasons changed. Spain was another key player in the cod trade, offering high-quality oil and wine in exchange for the highest-quality cod. Iceland’s independence movement even spawned from efforts to bolster its own cod industry. By using the cod trade as a key unit of analysis, Kurlansky illustrates that cod is king because it has been the foundation of empires for centuries.

There are very few authors, especially those writing about food and the environment, who broach the subject of slavery and its role in driving some nations’ abilities to dominate others. Kurlansky’s matter-of-fact explanation of cod’s relationship to the slave trade strengthens his argument that cod did in fact change the world. He does so in a way that doesn’t wreak of condemnation, but instead subtly leads the reader to the often-neglected conclusion that cod allowed the colonies to flourish by fueling institutionalized slavery. Kurlansky notes that by 1700, “there were now three ways to buy slaves in West Africa: cash, salt cod, or Boston rum” (p. 89). In this and many other ways, Cod elucidates how interactions between international relations and the cod industry steered the course of history.

Although slavery eventually ended, the cod trade continued to thrive. Even as more and more cod were caught each year for new customers, it remained a ludicrous notion that a fish so plentiful you could scoop it up in baskets could ever be wiped out—until it became reality. Kurlansky argues that “catches were improving not because the stocks were plentiful but because fishing was getting more efficient” (p. 121) as a result of political, social, economic, and technological efforts. Government subsidies across Europe and throughout North America financed fisheries and built strong fishing vessels didn’t just catch more fish, but also acted as a standing navy. Technology also introduced gillnetting, longlines, and factory ships that made every catch more plentiful. Then, the invention of the steam engine enabled the destructive implementation of beam trawling, or bottom draggers. Catches multiplied six-fold and cod stocks began showing signs of exhaustion by the early 1900s. But conservation did not enter the conversation until the end of the 20th century, which Kurlansky argues may have been too late.

Conservation became a point of interest only just ten years before Cod was published. In 1984, the Icelandic government introduced fishing quotas. In 1989, the Norwegian government placed severe restrictions on its own cod fishing industry. The Canadian government held out for eight more years by heavily subsidizing fishing communities, until it finally instigated a full-out moratorium on cod fishing in 1992. Today, the European Union institutes the Common Fishing Policy, which sets a monthly quota of each species for every country in all areas of the EU’s oceans. Sadly, few of these efforts have worked.

As of 1997, when Cod was published, “60 percent of the fish types tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) [were] categorized as fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted” (p.198). According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, roughly 90 percent of global fish stocks fall within those categories today. Cod is categorized as depleted in the Northwest Atlantic and as overexploited to depleted in the Northeast Atlantic. Kurlansky ends Cod with the sobering point that even though exploiting fish is very difficult to achieve, humans have managed to do so, much to our own destruction.


Sam Jones is a second-year AFE student and the co-editor of the Friedman Sprout. She currently works at 88 Acres as the Nutrition Communications Intern.

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The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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