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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

The Fish That Changed the World

Air Date: Week of May 2, 2003

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The Canadian Parliament recently banned all commercial and recreational fishing off the shores of the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. Mark Kurlanksy, author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," says that life in the fishing town of Newfoundland will be changed forever.

Transcript

CURWOOD: For centuries, the people of Newfoundland have fished the Atlantic for cod. They built their towns and traditions around the fish and lived off its ample harvest.
But in the last few decades, cod stocks collapsed from over-fishing and pollution. And now the Canadian government has taken the drastic step of banning all commercial cod fishing in the Atlantic.

Writer Mark Kurlansky has these thoughts on this latest chapter in the history of the “fish that changed the world.”

KURLANSKY: Europeans first came to this continent drawn by the thick school of cod in the shoals off Atlantic Canada. First, the Vikings, then the Basques. Then, in 1497, explorer John Cabot reached Newfoundland. There, he and his crew announced to the world endless schools of cod of a size and thickness never before seen. This spurred one of the great migrations in history, as fleets of Europeans rushed to North America to catch its cod.

Those first Europeans, upon reaching the continent, wrote of natural riches in the land, sky, and sea, such as never before recorded in history. Most of that is gone now. As surely as the Sioux were destroyed by the killing of the great buffalo herds, Newfoundland has been destroyed.

Nowhere did cod produce a more unique culture than in the rocky inlets of this northern island. The entire coast of Newfoundland is a series of coves where villages have been built over the water, because the shore is too steep. For 500 years, men have gone to sea, many in small, flat skiffs, in water so cold that a man overboard is almost instantly dead.

Fishing and curing cod were the only work these villagers ever had. These rugged men are no sports fans and are rarely seen throwing a ball or watching a game. As children, instead of playing, they were expected to run home from school to help the women look after the catch. These solidly built, red-cheeked Northerners, with lilting brogues and ancient songs and stories, could be from any century since Cabot’s landing. This was the oldest European civilization in North America.

If the fish had lasted, this life could have continued for centuries more. With the fisheries closed, the villages of Newfoundland will be, in effect, shut down. It is impossible to say in what ways the ecology of the North Atlantic will change with one of its greatest species missing. We are changing the order of nature. Already some fisherman have switched to a profitable species of crab that was never there before. But many others will have to leave.

So, farewell to Newfoundland, the tall-rocked island of Irish songs, Jamaican rum, and little villages on stilts facing a charcoal Northern Sea. We are losing more than we know.

CURWOOD: Mark Kurlansky is author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.”

 

Links

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

 

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