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A Biography of the Fish That Changed
the World
By Mark Kurlansky
Walker 294pp $21

What a prodigious creature is the cod. This bottom-dwelling fish forms massive schools and swims with its mouth open, devouring everything that will fit down its gullet. A fully mature female may produce 9 million eggs a year. No wonder that when John Cabot explored the North Atlantic in 1497, his crew simply dropped baskets over the side to haul in all they could eat. But in Cod: A Biography of The Fish That Changed the World, author Mark Kurlansky says: ''If ever there was a fish made to endure, it is the Atlantic cod--the common fish. But it has among its predators man, an openmouthed species greedier than the cod.''

From there, Kurlansky, a regular contributor to Audubon and Food and Wine magazines, cooks up a chowder of history, passages from literature, and recipes. The approach is intriguing--and deceptively whimsical. This little book is a work of no small consequence.

Extensive codfish commerce took root in the ninth century, when Norse explorers discovered that cod, because its flesh is less than 1% fat, is easily preserved through drying, making distribution throughout Northern Europe possible. The Basques made an even more important discovery--that salt preserved the fish and made its mild flesh tastier. Since salted fish last much longer than dried, the Basques extended their market to the Mediterranean.

The Basques tried to keep their fishing grounds, the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, a secret. But John Cabot found them out. The English became the masters of the cod trade, reaping sizable profits, providing basic training for seamen, and supplying their warships with protein for long voyages. For the settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony, the easily harvested cod became a dietary staple as well as a fertilizer. Kurlansky credits the lucrative cod trade with providing the economic wherewithal necessary for the colonies to declare political independence.

The advent of steam power hit the cod hard. Small, shallow-draft vessels and handlines gave way to ships with nets and power winches to pull in massive catches. More recently, huge fleets of factory ships from around the world moved in. As catches dwindled, fisheries officials insisted that the cod had simply migrated and would return, as they had for hundreds of years. It was 1992 before Canada imposed a moratorium on fishing in the Grand Banks, which are now closed. Atlantic cod these days come largely from Icelandic waters, which that nation began managing stringently in the 1950s.

There's no assurance that a temporary moratorium will restore Atlantic cod. Other fish could crowd in. And it takes cod about 15 years to reach sexual maturity. Kurlansky's skepticism that the fleets can be held at bay for that long seems well-founded. Ultimately, he raises a larger issue about managing natural resources, particularly wildlife. ''It is harder to kill off fish than mammals,'' he says. ''But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.'' Perhaps in five years, Kurlansky will need to update his book with a new title, Cod: A History of an Environmental Disaster.



PHOTO: Cover, ``Cod''

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Updated Sept. 18, 1997 by bwwebmaster
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