• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Fish That Changed the World

Air Date: Week of

stream/download this segment as an MP3 file

The Canadian Parliament recently banned all commercial and recreational fishing off the shores of the Atlantic provinces and Quebec. Mark Kurlanksy, author of "Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World," says that life in the fishing town of Newfoundland will be changed forever.


CURWOOD: For centuries, the people of Newfoundland have fished the Atlantic for cod. They built their towns and traditions around the fish and lived off its ample harvest.
But in the last few decades, cod stocks collapsed from over-fishing and pollution. And now the Canadian government has taken the drastic step of banning all commercial cod fishing in the Atlantic.

Writer Mark Kurlansky has these thoughts on this latest chapter in the history of the “fish that changed the world.”

KURLANSKY: Europeans first came to this continent drawn by the thick school of cod in the shoals off Atlantic Canada. First, the Vikings, then the Basques. Then, in 1497, explorer John Cabot reached Newfoundland. There, he and his crew announced to the world endless schools of cod of a size and thickness never before seen. This spurred one of the great migrations in history, as fleets of Europeans rushed to North America to catch its cod.

Those first Europeans, upon reaching the continent, wrote of natural riches in the land, sky, and sea, such as never before recorded in history. Most of that is gone now. As surely as the Sioux were destroyed by the killing of the great buffalo herds, Newfoundland has been destroyed.

Nowhere did cod produce a more unique culture than in the rocky inlets of this northern island. The entire coast of Newfoundland is a series of coves where villages have been built over the water, because the shore is too steep. For 500 years, men have gone to sea, many in small, flat skiffs, in water so cold that a man overboard is almost instantly dead.

Fishing and curing cod were the only work these villagers ever had. These rugged men are no sports fans and are rarely seen throwing a ball or watching a game. As children, instead of playing, they were expected to run home from school to help the women look after the catch. These solidly built, red-cheeked Northerners, with lilting brogues and ancient songs and stories, could be from any century since Cabot’s landing. This was the oldest European civilization in North America.

If the fish had lasted, this life could have continued for centuries more. With the fisheries closed, the villages of Newfoundland will be, in effect, shut down. It is impossible to say in what ways the ecology of the North Atlantic will change with one of its greatest species missing. We are changing the order of nature. Already some fisherman have switched to a profitable species of crab that was never there before. But many others will have to leave.

So, farewell to Newfoundland, the tall-rocked island of Irish songs, Jamaican rum, and little villages on stilts facing a charcoal Northern Sea. We are losing more than we know.

CURWOOD: Mark Kurlansky is author of “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.”



Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth