Fish is cured in order to preserve it; the term cure derives from the Latin curare, which means to take care of. Ancient methods of preserving fish included drying, salting, pickling and smoking. Modern methods of canning and freezing have substantially supplanted these methods today.
Archaeologists and anthropologists estimate that man began drying and smoking fish shortly after he discovered fire, and that he was salting fish in the Stone Age. Cooked fish were preserved in sesame oil in Mesopotamia as early as 3,000 BC, and dried, salted fish was part of the Sumerian diet. Salt from the Dead Sea was used to cure fish by Jewish populations by 1,600 BC, Phoenicians were trading salted fish in the Mediterranean by 1,200 BC and, by 900 BC, the Greeks maintained “salt gardens” and dry salt curing and smoking were well established. By 200 BC the Romans had acquired curing procedures from the Greeks and developed methods to pickle fish in brine. Saltpeter (potassium nitrate) is believed to have been gathered in China and India prior to the Christian era.
Cured fish was important to the development of maritime nations because livestock was difficult to winter and there was little meat during the cold months. With poor agricultural methods, there was a dearth of other protein foods as well. People needed an inexpensive source of protein, and cured fish supplied this need. Before the industrial revolution, commerce traded in natural products: Spanish wine was traded for English, Dutch or Norwegian cured fish. In the 16th century, England’s smoked herring was traded throughout central Europe, to the extent that England acquired more wealth from cured fish products than Spain amassed from the gold it seized in the Americas.
On the North Atlantic coast of America, curing fish was an industry at least 100 years before there was a permanent settlement. Some reports estimate that by 1580 more than 300 ships were salting cod along the coast. Given poor soil and an uncertain climate, the early colonists in New England and the Maritime Provinces of Canada would not have survived without salt cod and smoked herring. Cured fish provided the basis for New England’s “triangular trade” (salt fish from New England went to Europe, manufactured goods went from Europe to the West Indies, and sugar, rum and molasses came from the West Indies back to New England). Trade in cured fish stimulated other industries, allowing colonists to accumulate capital and, eventually, enter shipping, exploit other natural resources (timber, for example), and create manufactured goods. It can be argued that New England industries owe their origins to foreign trade in cured fish.
The fish curing industry continued to dominate New England’s economy in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the French and the British struggled to control North American fishing grounds and the trade in cured fish. These disputes did not end when France was finally ousted from Canada; they continued between Great Britain and the New England colonists. Things peaked when, in 1775, Parliament passed a bill which prohibited the New England colonies from trading directly with foreign countries and from fishing traditional waters off the coasts of Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia. The ruinous effect of this edict on the cured fish industry helped bring the New England colonies to revolution. Moreover, the peace treaty negotiated with Britain in 1783 was delayed when American negotiators insisted on favorable fishing rights.
In the past, fishing vessels were restricted in range by the simple consideration that the catch must be returned to port before it spoiled and became worthless. Similarly, inland populations long distances from ports could not be supplied with fresh fish and were limited to cured fish. As refrigeration and freezing technologies developed in the last decades of the 19th century, the market for fresh fish widened in the United States, fishermen could conduct operations further out to sea, and salting and drying fish on the North Eastern coast became less important. Canning, also developed during the 19th century, impacted curing by distributing seasonal catches of fish, like sardines, to distant populations.