History Matters: Four centuries of disappearing cod - shrinking since 1623

Ray Brighton was right. His aptly titled two-volume history of Portsmouth, “They Came to Fish,” defines in four small words the reason New Hampshire was founded.

It also hints, between the lines, that the original European immigrants to this region were motivated, not by the desire for religious freedom, but by profit. And the most profitable local commodity in the early 1600s was cod.

New Hampshire’s early provincial seal depicted a tree, a quiver of arrows representing the unity of our five colonial regions, and a fish. Those early cod, like the tall pines in our old growth forests, were huge. The protein-rich cod that lured early European explorers to the Gulf of Maine were massive by modern standards, running to 100, 120, possibly even 150 pounds. Our motto might have been “In Cod We Trust.”

But the Giant Cod, like the tall white pines that fueled the profitable ship’s mast trade are gone. Archaeological evidence from the Isles of Shoals demonstrates how quickly the largest of the species were overfished by men in wooden boats even before the end of the 17th century.

Today, the iconic New England cod, like its king-sized ancestor, is in deep trouble. The Atlantic cod population has declined dramatically. Last week marine biologist Ellen Goethel, the owner of Explore the Ocean World at Hampton Beach, posed a serious question for readers of the Hampton Union: “Where have all the codfish in the Gulf of Maine gone?”

Under the surface:

Where have all the codfish in the Gulf of Maine gone?

The Great Cod Rush

We can always blame Capt. John Smith of Pocahontas fame. His 1616 bestseller, “A Description of New England,” promoted the potential commercial value of the abundant fish and whale populations then thriving in the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine. Smith imagined the first New England settlements not as religious havens, but as high-profit fishing stations. He suggested creating a New England industry like that already active in the Canadian Maritimes, Labrador and Newfoundland.


History Matters: Portsmouth in 1621, 1721, 1821, 1921

Smith wanted to found his American colony on those large Atlantic cod — he perfect, portable, protein-rich, low-fat food. The thick, white cod flesh was not fishy-tasting. Amazingly, when freshly split, salted, and dried in the sun, cod could survive for months, even years. Then when soaked in water and cooked, it was still flavorful and nourishing. Dried cod was a welcome change from fish like herring, which was regularly stored wet and pickled in wooden casks that could go rancid. Dried fish from New England, Smith promised his potential British investors, could be as valuable as pearls, silks, and diamonds.

Captain Smith failed in three attempts to found a colony in the Gulf of Maine, possibly at the Isles of Shoals that he named “Smythes Isles.” He died impoverished in London. But his book contained his famous map of the region and was like a beacon to settlers who followed. Those arrivals include the now-famous band of religious Separatists who settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, even as hundreds of English fishermen were setting up seasonal fisheries on the rocky Isles of Shoals. Dried cod or “stockfish” was then shipped back to the ravenous European market.

But the nation’s “Pilgrim fathers” were farmers, as Nathaniel Philbrick points out in his best-selling history “Mayflower” (2006). “Even though they lived on the edge of one of the world’s great fishing grounds, the Pilgrims were without the skills and the equipment required to take advantage of it,” Philbrick noted.

A thriving marketplace

John Smith was only saying what others had been saying for decades. In 1597, for example, Capt. Charles Leigh reported that, while fishing for cod in the Gulf of St. Lawrence: “In little more than an hour we caught with four hooks - two hundred and fifty.” Atlantic codfish leapt from the sea directly into the fisherman's wicker baskets, he reported with obvious exaggeration. Cod were so numerous that in 1602 one fisherman recorded tossing them back because his boat was quickly overloaded and in danger of capsizing.

By the early 17th century, the prime fishing grounds of Europe were overfished and in sharp decline. Catholicism, meanwhile, was on the rise, requiring more and more people to abstain from eating meat during frequent holy days. Meat, as Brian Fagan explains in his book “Fish on Friday” (2007), was associated with carnal desires of the flesh, while fish, a popular Christian symbol, was connected to theories of purification, fasting, and atonement. “New England was settled,” Fagan wrote, “not by Pilgrims escaping persecution. . . but by roistering cod fishermen.”

Famous explorers named Cabot, Cartier, and Champlain filed similar glowing reports about the abundant sea resources in the New World even before Smith arrived. The discovery of a seemingly endless supply of fresh cod was as important to 17th-century Europe as finding an untapped source of oil or natural gas might be to an energy-starved nation today.

Kennebunk Town Column:

A fishing legacy -- The Nunan family of Cape Porpoise

While David Thompson’s fortified fishing station in what is now Rye, N.H., lasted only a few years, New Hampshire continues to claim 1623 as our first English settlement. Work continued at the Isles of Shoals where skilled cod “dressers” labored as if on an assembly line. The “throater” cut the cod from belly to anus and passed it to the “header” who, after ripping out the entrails, tossed the liver into one basket and the roe into another. Then he neatly sliced off the head of the fish and kicked it into the sea through a hole in the staging platform.

The “splitter” then separated the fish flesh from the backbone with lightning-fast movements of his sharp knife. Then the fish were dried, turned, and salted on rocks or wooden platforms called “flakes.” Having filled their quota, the ships packed up and sailed home to market. Because fishermen like to keep their prized spots secret, history knew little about the extent of the Shoals operation until 21st-century archaeological digs.

By the 1640s, the seasonal fishermen had begun to settle, acquire land, marry, and build homes on the mainland. Two entrepreneurs who set up operations at the Isles of Shoals, Richard Cutt and William Pepperrell, later became the primary landowners in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Kittery, Maine. By 1675, the population of the Isles of Shoals had reached 275 souls. Living on a rock at sea was harsh in the best of times. The population of the oceanbound town of Gosport declined almost to zero during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. It rebounded in the 1800s, suffered from fading fishing stock, and ended with the sale of Star Island to a hotel investor from Boston.

Still a complex problem

Even the mighty sea can only take so much. In his 2015 op-ed for the New York Times, former UNH professor and Portsmouth resident W. Jeffrey Bolster viewed the cod problem through a historical lens when men simply fished with hooks from small boats. “In fact,” he wrote, “humans have been affecting the Atlantic’s fish stocks for centuries, beginning with technology so simple that people today would not even consider it ‘technology.’”

In “Where Have All the Cod Gone,” Bolster noted that Maine and Massachusetts fishermen began begging the government to help solve the problem of the declining cod population as early as 1850. He wrote: “Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years.”

“The Gulf of Maine cod stocks today are probably only a fraction of 1 percent of what they were during George Washington’s presidency,” Bolster calculated. And this, even with increasing governmental protection and regulation.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the iconic Atlantic cod can live up to 20 years and grow up to 77 pounds. But they are in trouble. Cod remains “overfished and below the target biomass level” and NOAA fisheries are working to rebuild the population in Grand Banks of Newfoundland by 2027. Skeptics fear the effort is too late. Global warming and a recent rise in the seal population have not helped. Debate rages as to whether “culling” the seal population would have any noticeable effect in a decline that, historically speaking, has been going on since Europeans came to fish in the Gulf of Maine.

“The loss of cod is complicated and is the result of many things, but most are man-made,” says Jennifer Seavey, Kingsbury Director of the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island at the Isles of Shoals. She cites historic overfishing, shifting and changing prey stocks, and shifting food webs. Seals eat fish, for example, but sharks eat seals. Studies show that cod stocks decline during intense warming in the North Atlantic.

The Gulf of Maine is changing rapidly, most scientists agree. The seemingly endless supply of giant cod that attracted New Hampshire’s founders, it turns out, was in fact, a precious and limited resource. Their smaller Atlantic cod descendants are disappearing, too. “We need to address and prepare for climate change which is happening now,” Jennifer Seavey says. History and science are both sending up the same signal flare.

For more information see “The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail” by W. Jeffrey Bolster and “Cod, the Biography of a Fish that Changed the World” by Mark Kurlansky.

Copyright 2021 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Portions of this article were adapted from “Under the Isles of Shoals” and “Mystery on the Isles of Shoals” by the author. Dennis has written a dozen on topics including Strawberry Banke Museum, the Music Hall, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His first history mystery novel, “Point of Graves,” is scheduled for release this fall. He can be reached at dennis@myseacoastnh.com or visit www.jdennisrobinson.com online.