Yesterday I stopped by the fish counter at my local grocery store for something to grill on a Saturday evening. The selection was typical — farm-raised salmon from Chile, farm-raised tilapia from Ecuador, farm-raised catfish from Mississippi, farm-raised crawfish from China, snow crab legs from Alaska. And a few spot and croaker, presumably from local Chesapeake waters.
But what stopped me in my tracks was a little plate of “wild-caught cod fillets, product of USA”. First of all, I’m always a bit surprised to see cod in a store at all, to know, that is, that cod is still being fished after the once gargantuan populations of this archetypal fish have collapsed throughout its extensive range. But I was struck by something more specific:
These cod fillets were actually smaller than the tilapia fillets.
Honestly. They reminded me of the flimsy (albeit tasty) little slips of flesh you shave off the sides of your first 6-inch bluegill caught with a worm and a bamboo pole in a quiet pond. The little cod scraps were so pathetic I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This, evidently, is what’s left of the fish that changed the course of western civilization. These little white morsels are the ghosts of the fish once represented by monsters as large as the burly fishermen that pursued them. This was the animal that supported the fantastically lucrative fishery that drew intrepid Basque seafarers to North America centuries before Columbus and kept their mouths shut through those centuries for fear of losing their monopoly on the most gigantic supply of animal protein on earth. This was the fish that fed the vikings in their medieval conquest of the North Atlantic and settlement of Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. This was the fish that saved the nascent American colony of Massachusetts from failure and gave birth to the first international market economy in the New World. (It’s all in Mark Kurlansky’s fantastic book.)
This was the fish that dominated the ecosystem of the entire north Atlantic Ocean and that, finally, after centuries of plunder, collapsed suddenly and perhaps irreversibly throughout most of that range little more than a decade ago.
Now, I have nothing against tilapia. In fact, I eat it on a regular basis and I’ve argued elsewhere that tilapia is an ideal food because it has (potentially) one of the smallest ecological footprints of any animal food product. But, let’s face it, tilapia is a scavenging creature of reedy ditches. For all its practical merits, it is not a noble fish. It cannot keep company with the aristocracy of the storied cod, the formerly undisputed King of the North Atlantic Ocean, now relegated to sitting forlornly on a piece of lettuce next to its utilitarian peasant sister.
Now there’s a shifting baseline for you.