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Fish on Fridays

By Paul Greenberg, Safina Center Fellow

Lofoten Archipelago, Norway. Photo: Paul Greenberg

Walking around the Norwegian town of Gradstad today I was surprised to see a codfish split down the center and nailed up to dry in the spring sun. It was a massive fish, in American terms anyway, probably over thirty pounds. Its appearance surprised me because it ran contrary to the way Americans have been thinking about cod for at least a quarter century.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

Ever since the author Mark Kurlansky published his 1997 international bestseller Cod, it has been an article of faith in the media that cod are doomed. Kurlansky’s pronouncement that North Atlantic fishermen had found themselves at the “wrong end of a 1000 year fishing spree” when the famous Newfoundland cod grounds were closed to fishing in the late 1980s set a tone for a one way narrative of diminishment. This narrative begins when the Basque first discovered codfish grounds around 800 AD. They figured out how to salt them for storage and then introduced this first industrialized fish product to the rest of Europe. The “fish on Friday” habit of European Catholics in Europe was launched by the availability of cheap, salted cod and expressed itself in different national recipes from Portugal to the Soviet Union. In the Kurlanskyian mode, this was the warning bell that spelled the disaster for cod.

The narrative continues through the industrial revolution’s invention of bottom trawling on up through the World Wars and the battleship-sized processing vessels they inspired. Add in climate change, short-sighted regulators and a propensity among humans to push things to the limit under the philosophy of “Maximum Sustainable Yield” and you have all the elements for a sad story to be told over and over again. So often has the story been told that one New England politician noted to me recently that “In Massachusetts today there are more documentaries about the collapse of cod than there are cod.”

Except, that the big cod nailed to the barn in Norway suggested that this didn’t have to be the narrative. Over the last two weeks I have been sailing aboard the National Geographic Explorer from Bergen, along the Norwegian Coast headed to Svalbard Island. Toward the end of our first week at sea we pulled into the village of Reine in the Lofoten archipelago where I came to realize that there was another narrative taking shape.

The Lofoten Islands are largely responsible for taking the Basque idea of salting cod and transforming it into a global industry. And, miraculously, this tradition is still continuing today. All over the village of Reine I could see racks and racks of codfish drying in the cold air.

Codfish drying on rack. Photo: Paul Greenberg

The heads too were put out to dry and are today used as an ingredient in aquaculture feed.

Photo: Paul Greenberg

But while Norwegian cod stocks seemed as if they too would plummet as recently as the 1960s, they have of late made a remarkable recovery. The change is largely due to a strategic choice made in an atmosphere of careful science and transparent regulation. Unlike the US and Canada, Norway and the Soviet Union did rigorous collaborative research as early as the 1970s that allowed them to more fully understand the biology of their fish and how best to apply a precautionary approach to management. This also helped the two countries gradually move toward what are known as individual transferable quotas or ITQs. ITQs pre-allocate fish tonnage to a given number of vessels and greatly reduce the risk of a chaotic “race for fish”. Of course they are not fool proof. When the US introduced ITQs into New England’s groundfish fishery, New Bedford’s infamous “Codfather” gobbled up quota for his vessels and then fudged the records to disguise the amount of cod his fleet actually caught behind a curtain of fraud. This kind of behavior has contributed to the stalling out of cod recovery in New England. And, anyway, for America’s Atlantic codfish it may simply have been a case of too little sound management too late in the game.

But in Norway, a country that has a firm belief in managing for the collective good, ITQs have worked. And though some credit the boom in Lofoten cod with a warming ocean and a more productive bloom of capelin (codfish’s primary prey) humans have shown time and time again that they often illogically squander abundance. For the moment logic is ruling over the codfish of the Lofoten Archipelago ensuring that Europe, for now, will continue to have fish on Fridays, and maybe on Saturdays and Sundays too.

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