The Atlantic Cod Fishery
Off the northeastern shore of North America, from the island of Newfoundland in Canada south to new England in the United States, there is a series of shallow areas called banks. Several large banks off Newfoundland are together called Grand Banks, huge shoals on the edge of North American continental shelf, where the warm waters of the Gulf Stream meet the cold waters of Labrador Current. As the currents brush each other, they stir up mineral from the ocean floor, providing nutrients for plankton and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, which feed on the plankton. Herring and other small fish rise to the surface to eat the krill. Groundfish, such as the Atlantic cod, live in the ocean’s bottom layer, congregating in the shallow waters where they prey on krill and small fish. This rich environment has produced cod by the millions and once had a greater density of cod than anywhere else on Earth.
Beginning in the eleventh century, boats from the ports of north western Europe arrived to fish the Grand Banks. For the next eight centuries, the entire Newfoundland economy taking fish back to European markets. Cod laid out to dry on wooden “flakes” was a common sight in the fishing villages dotting the coast. Settlers in the region used to think the only sea creature worth talking about was cod, and in the local speech the word “fish” became synonymous with cod. Newfoundland’s national dish was a pudding whose main ingredient was cod.
By the nineteenth century, the Newfoundland fishery was largely controlled by merchants based in the capital at St. John’s. They marketed the catch supplied by the fishers working out of more than 600 villages around the long coastline. In return, the merchants provided fishing equipment, clothing, and all the food that could not be grown in the island’s thin, rocky soil. This system kept the fishers in a continuous state of debt and dependence on the merchants.