Seafood of the 21st century: Bonsai cod

cod_and_tilapia.jpgYesterday 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.

cod_and_halibut.jpgHonestly. 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.

cod_kurlansky.gifNow, 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.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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3 Responses to Seafood of the 21st century: Bonsai cod

  1. jas says:

    good post. this doesn’t really detract from your point on cod’s decline,but speaking of ‘shifting baselines’… this could be a case of mislabeling, a pervasive practice ms. jacquet documented in a recent pub:

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for bringing this paper to my attention, Jas. I was aware of the mislabeling issue but it sounds more serious than I had thought. Perhaps those little fillets were actually Alaska pollock — or even “oilfish” (whatever that is). It’s hard to be a responsible consumer when you don’t know whether the goods on display are a fraud.

    At the same time, they might well have been cod, as advertised.  Cod is typical of many intensively harvested marine fishes, which have declined steadily over recent decades not only in body size but also in the size and age at which fish reach maturity.  There is considerable indirect evidence that those changes are partly due to evolutionary “miniaturization” of fish in the face of intense selection presure favoring smaller individuals within the population.

  3. kevin z says:

    Nice perspective. I enjoyed how you reminded us how cod has influenced civilization over 1000 years. I really need to read Kurlansky’s book, its been on my “to buy” list. Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll have some time to read (after my comps!).

    With regards to mislabeling, I’m so confused about it that we only buy farmed tilapia or catfish, occassionally some haddock. Being inland doesn’t give you much choices. I have a buddy that brings walleye from Lake Erie on a regular basis. But I looked up the PCB and metal levels of fish in PA and OH lakes and they recommend one serving a month! Wife my wife breastfeeding right now we don’t take any chances, so its bottom feeders and sustainable arctic shrimp for us. Maybe I can get you to ship us some fresh crab.