The last time I checked (and I do check often), a codfish, or any type of fish for that matter, is not a good subject for a biography. Codfish do not give quotations, and therefore are unable to give interviews. For most traditional biographers, this muteness would stand in the way of garnering successful material for the book, and leave the reader unfulfilled. However, in Cod, Mark Kurlansky fascinates the reader with his historical research, numerous quotations from cod anglers (remember, Cod still cannot talk), and recipes (cod recipes follow every chapter, and have a section devoted to them in the appendix). But, while Cod may be written in a flowing, poetic prose (Jacques Pépin, back of book), Kurlanskys lack of scientific background also occasionally leads the reader astray with information that is not entirely accurate. Thus, with that being said, here is my recap and analysis of the book.
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Throughout the course of the biography, Kurlanskys seemingly exhaustive research provides numerous interesting tidbits of historical information that relates to cod and fisheries in general. In no particular order- First, Kurlansky discusses the plight of Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, and writes that Petty Harbour did not return to archaic forms of fishing technology in the 1940s for conservation measures. Instead, the author pens that in truth
there simply would not have been enough space as 125 fishers could not be supported by the size of the cove (7). Thus, while the Newfoundlandites move away from modern technology is often viewed as a way to help the fish stock, in all reality it was a mostly selfish action only taken when too many fishermen had tapped Petty Harbours resources. Next, the second interesting tidbit of information that I gleaned from this biography, is the mythic status that Cod held in the Catholic Church. On approximately half the days of the year, the medieval Church forbade meat, and sex on lean days as a means to cleanse the soul. However, cod did not fall under this category (possibly for its ability to rhyme with God, but thats my hypothesis), because it is a cold food that was not considered meat by the Church. Thus, Cod became almost a religious icon- a mythological crusader for Christian Observance as it became the staple of the Catholic churchgoers. Next, according to the book, the colonial governor of New Amsterdam, Adriaen van der Donck (ouch, I feel sorry for this guy), wrote that New York had six-foot lobsters. Moreover, Englishmen wrote of catching fiver-foot codfish off Maine, and there are persistent accounts in Canada of codfish as big as a man (49). Finally, and perhaps most interesting, three wars were fought over cod. While there may not have been any casualties, Iceland fiercely protected its fishing interests in battles over territorial zones in 1958, 1972, and 1975. These cod wars show the economic importance of cod for the countries that were involved (amazingly Iceland, France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, and Britain all took part).
Critique of Book
While this book certainly presents excellent historical information about cod, it fails in addressing some of the more controversial issues that face fisheries today. The book jacket biography shows that Kurlansky is a writer first, and lack the proper scientific training necessary to tackle some of the books meatier issues. Kurlansky's only association with fish (outside of the research for this book), comes from spending several years on commercial fishing boats as a youth (book jacket). This book is not replete with numerous footnotes, graphs, and scientific data that often accompanies other books in the fisheries genre.
My first critique of the book revolves around the authors seemingly baseless optimism about the restoration of the Atlantic cod in Canada. Kurlansky asserts, in Canada, if everything went well, about 15 years would be needed to restore the population (194). The only evidence he offers to support his case is that the restoration of stock requires some large old spawners, and such fish in the northern stock are about fifteen years old (194). Clearly, scientific issues are not his forte. Moreover, Kurlansky argues that decimated cod stocks have been restored fairly quickly in other countries (192) such as Norway. However, with the attitudes of No one is ever going to stop me from fishing (Gloucester fisherman) (228), anglers have shown that they feel that they have an innate right to the fish, and will do their best to find the loopholes in government regulation in order to fish. The fishermen repeatedly question what will happen when the fish come back, and believe that a limited amount of time will allow the stock to rebound to record levels. Kurlansky appears to side with the fishermen when he states that in the 1980s, (Canadian) government scientists had ignored the cry of inshore fishermen that the cod were disappearing (4). The author does not address the idea of scientific uncertainty, or organizations inability to institute policy as reasons for why the government had ignored the cries. Clearly, the government had not ignored the fishermen, but instead there was a gap in communication between the two groups.
Next, I find the authors unwillingness or inability to comment on the fishermens quotations annoying, as he does not take a strong stance on any of the issues that the anglers offer, and instead leaves the reader to process these quotations. While the goal of biographies is often to present an objective take on an issue, Kurlansky solely presents the quotations and does not offer much commentary. The anglers in the book offer numerous quotations worthy of critique. For example, they are so blindly attached to their industry that one of the Newfoundland fishermen featured in the book offers that Theyre (cod) coming back because they have to (191). Much like the other quotations in the book, Kurlansky continues writing his story, and does not integrate quotations fully into his work. He merely presents quotations such as their (anglers) plight is not their fault but the responsibility of the government (231), which offer strong ideas that contrast with his attempt at an objective writing style. I feel that these two styles (pointed quotations, and objective writing style) clash and leave an uneven feeling to the book.
Finally, I believe that Kurlanskys stance about T.H. Huxleys ideas about the indestructibility of nature inaccurate. According to Kurlansky, for the next 100 years, Huxleys influence would be reflected in Canadian government policy (123). However, while he makes this bold statement, he gives very little evidence to support this stance. While it is true that the Canadian government often ignored the problems, it does not seem possible the government could integrate Huxleys ideas for 100 years with so much scientific information abounding about the topic. For example, Kurlansky asserts that in 1902 Britain first admitted the problem of over fishing and depletion of stock. Thus, nations around the globe knew about the problem of depleted stocks. Moreover, Kurlansky asserts, every year one or two [books] are still published on this idea (186). Thus, my main issue with this biography is that the author often makes statements such as the preceding ones, and does not offer examples to support his cause. No books are named, and the reader is left with a statement which needs some type of backing in order to support its validity.
Thus, the key question raised in this book is how a fish that has built numerous societies (New England, Newfoundland, and Iceland to name three), caused three wars, and had a biblical importance, could be so disregarded by mankind and over-fished to near extinction. As we begin a new millennium, a new question must be raised: what role (if any) will fisheries play in the future? According to statistics offered at the end of the book, a 1989 study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that it cost about $92 billion to operate the global fishing fleet. Revenue, on the other hand, was only $70 billion (232). Although I do not have a more recent statistic, I would believe that this deficit must be either similar or even worse as the fish stocks worldwide have been declining. Moreover, with government subsidies supporting fishermen in countries such as Canada, the economic necessity of fisheries must be seriously questioned. Although fishermen argue that they are unable to do any other jobs, and that there are not any jobs available, I do not fully understand why they remain in the fishing industry with the current environmental and economic state of fishing worldwide. A fisherman offers a typical attitude: thats my brother- he was a captain, and now hes cutting grass. A captain, cutting grass (230). With elitist attitudes like this, and the refusal to look at the environmental aspect of their work, a clear explanation to why the Atlantic cod is near extinction is offered.