“New Englanders value their cod: For centuries, it was one of our region’s most plentiful fish. Many a colonial fortune was garnered selling salted cod to other parts of the world…. Cod was so important to the Massachusetts economy that back in 1784, a carved wooden statue of the ‘sacred cod’ was hung at the state house.” Roger Berkowitz and Jane Doerfer, Legal Sea Foods Cookbook
Cod is a fish with a mild flavor and dense, flaky white flesh. The two most common species are Atlantic cod, which lives in colder, deeper waters throughout the North Atlantic, and Pacific cod, found in eastern and western regions of the northern Pacific. Young Atlantic cod or haddock cut into strips for cooking are referred to as scrod.
The Vikings began trading dried cod as early as 800AD, and the market they created has lasted for over 1,000 years; Norwegians still consider the cod trade important to their economy. The Portuguese began fishing cod in the 15th century, and the Basques allegedly found Canadian fishing banks before Columbus discovered America.
The vast cod stocks along the East Coast of North America were central to New England’s history and development. In the 17th and 18th centuries cod became a major commodity in the New World, especially in Newfoundland and Massachusetts. Britain’s efforts to gain control over cod trade between New England and the Caribbean raised colonial protests, contributing to the onset of the American Revolution.
Other countries, including Iceland and Russia, entered the cod fishing trade and, by the 20th century, stocks, especially off European and American coasts, were severely depleted. The demand that catches be restricted so that stocks could recover was met with public outcry against the loss of jobs and livelihoods. In 2000 the World Wildlife Fund put cod on its endangered species list, noting that the global cod catch had suffered a 70% drop during the previous 30 years and that, if the trend continued, the world’s cod stocks would disappear in 15 years. Greenpeace International added cod to its seafood red list, which identifies fish commonly sold in supermarkets that are likely to be sourced from unsustainable fisheries, in 2010.
Seafood Watch gives cod as an example of how unsustainable fishing is destroying ocean ecosystems, and advises the public to avoid Pacific cod from Japan and Russia and Atlantic cod “except when it’s caught in the U.S. Georges Bank and U.S. Gulf of Maine with handlines and hand operated pole and lines, farmed in indoor recirculating tanks or certified by the Marine Stewardship Council.” They suggest buying “Pacific cod (‘tara’ in sushi) caught in Alaska, and then look at Pacific cod caught on the U.S. West Coast and in British Columbia, Canada, but know that these sources have environmental issues.”