Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
[Penguin USA (paper), 2003, $14]
Reviewed by Allan A. Kerin
Many of us remember from elementary, junior high (middle school for younger readers), and high school John Cabot's discovery of Newfoundland in 1497, the importance of the cod fish in the settlement of New England and Canada, and the role of Massachusetts fishermen ferrying George Washington across the East River after the Battle of Long Island and across the Delaware to attack the Hessians in Trenton. This brief, well-written book skillfully summarizes a thousand years of the Atlantic cod's history as a staple of the European and American diet, and a crucial factor in the economic and political development of the United States, Canada, and of a number of European nations. In the past two decades, the Atlantic cod population has collapsed, most dramatically in its once most fertile areas off the New England and Canadian coast. The cod and the cod fisherman have been displaced and the possibility of recovery for the industry is questionable. Has the ecology of the North Atlantic changed so much that, even in the absence of over-fishing, the species cannot regain its former numbers?
This book eloquently combines the threads of natural history, technology, and economic and political history. Cod was plentiful, easy to find, easy to catch, easy to preserve, and tasty. (Easy is a relative term. Commercial fishing is an extremely hard and dangerous occupation.) The Vikings depended on cod; the Basques played a vital role in fishing, processing, and distributing cod for centuries. Five hundred years ago salted and dried cod from the North Sea, Iceland, and then North America was a staple food thousands of miles away in Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Cod was a crucial part of the colonial web of trade among England, North America, Africa, and the West Indies. One of the biggest markets for the cheapest grade of salted New England cod was the sugar plantations of the West Indies, where it was used as an inexpensive food for slaves.
In our November 2002 issue of The Actuarial Review, Curtis Gary Dean reviewed Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage by Kenneth S. Deffeyes. That book described the inevitable depletion of a nonrenewable resource. Cod describes the avoidable and hence more tragic depletion of a renewable resource. Substitute species once thought inferior, such as pollack and whiting, are now used in place of Atlantic cod. Many of these species are also being depleted. Farm fishing, first of fresh water fish, then of salmon, and now perhaps of cod is one solution to depletion of wild stocks. But farm fishing may result in the reduction of genetic diversity of species and other long-term problems that undermine the health and reliability of the resource.
Does the solution to problems caused by our sophisticated modern fishing technology rely on more sophisticated technology? Are we approaching a point where human population levels put too much pressure on our environment? How do we best manage a shared resource, such as the oceans? These are vital questions and they are questions that actuaries, time permitting, have the skills to approach in a rigorous way through more technical sources. However, I think that all readers will find Cod to be an interesting and informative book. In addition, dozens of recipes spanning hundreds of years and many cultures, are included. I enjoyed this book and am anxious to start reading another of Kurlansky's books, Salt. (You can see that Kurlansky favors short titles.)