The History of Maine's Cod Fisheries

Once a Bustling Industry, Now Almost Gone

New England
Capt. Jeff

The Gulf of Maine stretches along the Eastern Seaboard northeast from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. To seaward, the gulf is bounded by the Georges Bank, which is part of the chain of shallow fishing zones along the continental shelf ending at the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. When John Cabot, the Italian explorer in English service, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1497 he noted that there were so many cod on the Grand Banks that they "can be taken not only with nets but with fishing baskets." This report encouraged Basque, Portuguese, Spanish and French fisherman to begin annual voyages to the New World to fish for large cod.

The cod they harvested were beheaded, gutted, split in half lengthwise, then lightly salted to draw the water out of the fresh, and finally air dried until very hard. This cured cod would be stockpiled for months until the ships were sailed back to Europe at the end of the fishing season. Whether it was called bacalao, morue, salt fish or makayabu, preserved cod became a central ingredient in the cuisines and cultures of many countries bordering the Atlantic.

By the 1600s, the Gulf of Maine was discovered to have plentiful fish stocks as well. The privateer Bartholomew Gosnold decided to honor the most abundant fish when he named Cape Cod. And it was the potential for profiting by fishing that was one of the reasons that Captain John Smith was attracted to settle the Plymouth Colony on that cape in 1620. Soon after, fishing stations were established along the coast of Maine on Monhegan, Damariscove, Southport and Matinicus islands. Initially, the British colonists fished in small boats that took to sea in the morning to find the cod that swam close to shore to spawn. The fishermen used hooks, lines and sinkers to land their catch, and they returned home each night. Once ashore this cod was salted and preserved, and as with any foodstuff, they produced differing grades of quality for sale.

Soon a triangular trade pattern then developed from British North America. Salt cod was shipped to Europe from New England, where the higher quality fish was traded for wine, fruit and other products that were needed on plantations in the West Indies. Once in the Caribbean, the European trade goods and the lower quality salt cod were sold. This cod, called West India cure, was used to feed the slaves on the plantations. Sugar, molasses (for making rum), cotton, tobacco and salt were then purchased in the Caribbean and sent back to New England. There the whole trading process began again. To this day, the heritage of feeding slaves dried cod is recognized in the national dish of Jamaica, ackee and salt fish. In St. Lucia, the better quality morue sold on the neighboring island of Martinique is prized for making a salt cod Easter dinner.

The importance to Great Britain of the cod fisheries in their New England colonies was summed up by William Pitt the Elder in a speech before Parliament, in 1763, when he pronounced that cod was "British gold." In the Massachusetts Colony, families that were enriched from the trade of cod were called the "cod fish aristocracy" and they expressed their wealth by building mansions in their harbor towns.

By the 19th century, the demand for salt cod was so great that fishing schooners plied the more plentiful banks offshore. These schooners carried small fishing dories that were launched and rowed along the shallow banks to handline for cod. To increase their catch, the schooners' dories began using longlines and gill nets. Longlines became popular after the Civil War, which were called trawl lines back then. Trawl lines were 1,800 feet long and made with quarter-inch diameter tarred cotton. A ganging, or leader, with an array of hooks was attached every six feet. Each of these hooks was baited, and the completed trawl line was coiled and placed in a wooden tub. Then each dory rowed out from the schooner at night with six tubs of trawl line. The fishermen would set longlines and return in the morning to haul in their catch.

In the days of schooners, the Maine fisherman started processing the cod aboard their vessel. After the head, entrails and backbone were removed, they were salted and stowed down below. Once the schooner returned to its home port, the cod were salted again, then laid out to air dry on wooden slats called flakes. When dried, they were packed in heavy wooden boxes for export.

By the 20th century, advances in technology first brought steam then diesel engines to fishing vessels. This mechanical power enabled these vessels, called draggers, to tow trawling nets along the sea bottom. Not only did they catch large amounts of fish, they stored the cod on ice in their holds and quickly brought the iced fish back to port under engine power. Salting and drying was no longer necessary for preservation, and the fresh cod market boomed.

Clarence Birdseye invented ash freezing in the 1920s to preserve fresh fish fillets at packing houses ashore. Factory ships, called freezer trawlers were developed after World War II, which could immediately process cod on board. It was harvested by the ton, filleted and flash frozen into huge solid blocks. However, buying a large chunk of frozen fish to make dinner with was not as appealing to the American consumer as selecting a fresh fish from the local fishmonger.

Enter E. Robert Kinney, who had grown up in Maine started a crab cannery in Bar Harbor. In the late 1950s, Kinney joined Gorton's Seafood Company and successfully solved the conundrum of marketing the huge blocks of frozen fish from the factory ships. He minced them up and formed them into fingers named fish sticks. Cod as a convenience food was born, and fish sticks became the definition of seafood for children growing up in the '60s and '70s. This combination of the freezer trawler and cod became so successful that it caused over fishing and severely depleted the cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine. By the mid-1990s the amount of cod harvested was at an all time low.

Today, the Maine cod fisheries have just about collapsed completely, as they have been significantly affected by climate change. Cod like cold water, period. And the Gulf of Maine water temperatures have risen by over 3 degrees in the last 10 years. That's 99 percent faster than the rest of the oceans. According to scientists, this warming has decreased the number of newly spawned cod and their ability to survive to adulthood. Can the Maine fisheries be saved? Only time will tell.

Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.

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