Thursday, November 5, 2009

With Mouth Wide Open

The hero, Gadus morhua, is not a nice guy.

It is built to survive. Fecund, impervious to disease and cold, feeding on most any food source, traveling to shallow waters and close to shore, it was the perfect commercial fish and the Basques had found its richest grounds. Cod should have lasted forever, and for a very long time it was assumed that it would. As late as 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture sad "Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile."

The cod is omnivorous, which is to say it will eat anything. It swims with its mouth open and swallows whatever will fit - including young cod. Knowing this sports fishermen in New England and Maritime Canada jig for cod, a baitless means of fishing, where a lure by its appearance and motion imitates a favorite prey of the target fish. A cod jigger is a piece of lead, sometimes fashioned to resemble a herring, but often shaped like a young cod.

Yet cod might be just as attracted to an unadorned piece of lead. English fishermen say they find Styrofoam cups thrown overboard from Channel-crossing ferries in the bellies of cod.

The cod's greed makes it easy to catch, but the fish is not much fun for sportsmen. A cod, once caught, does not fight for freedom. It simply has to be hauled up, and it is often large and heavy. New England anglers would far rather catch a bluefish than a cod. Bluefish are active hunters and furious fighters, and once hooked, a struggle ensues to reel in the line. But the bluefish angler brings home a fish with dark and oily flesh, characteristics of a midwater fighter who uses muscles for strong swimming. The cod, on the other hand, is prized for the whiteness of its flesh, the whitest of the white-fleshed fish, belonging to the order Gladiforms. The flesh is so purely white that the large flakes almost glow on the plate. Whiteness is the nature of the sluggish muscle tissue of fish that are suspended in the near-weightless environment at the bottom of the ocean. The cod will try swim in front on an oncoming trawler net, but after about ten minutes it falls to the back of the net, exhausted. White muscles are not for strength but for quick action - the speed with which a cod, slowly cruising, will suddenly pounce on its prey.


A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World

Mark Kurlansky

Vintage 1999

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