Brief History of Cod Fishing

Cod, Gadus morhua, Atlantic ocean

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The cod's importance to American history is undeniable. It was cod that attracted Europeans to North America for short-term fishing trips and eventually enticed them to stay.

The cod became one of the most sought-after fish in the North Atlantic, and it was its popularity that caused its enormous decline and the precarious situation today.

Indigenous Peoples

Long before Europeans arrived and "discovered" America, Indigenous peoples fished along its shores, using hooks they made from bones and nets made from natural fibers.

Cod bones such as otoliths (an ear bone) are plentiful in Indigenous artifacts and middens, suggesting that cod were an important part of Indigenous peoples' diets.

Earliest Europeans

The Vikings and Basques were some of the first Europeans to travel to the coast of North America and harvest and cure cod. Cod was dried until it was hard, or cured using salt so that it was preserved for a long period of time.

Eventually, explorers such as Columbus and Cabot "discovered" the New World. Descriptions of the fish indicate that cod were as big as men, and some say that fishermen could scoop the fish out of the sea in baskets. Europeans concentrated their cod fishing efforts in Iceland for a while, but as conflicts grew, they began fishing along the coast of Newfoundland and what is now New England.

Pilgrims and Cod

In the early 1600s, John Smith charted out New England. When determining where to flee, the Pilgrims studied Smith's map and were intrigued by the label "Cape Cod." They were determined to profit from fishing, although according to Mark Kurlansky, in his book Cod: a Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, "they knew nothing about fishing," (p. 68) and while the Pilgrims were starving in 1621, there were British ships filling their holds with fish off the New England coast.

Believing they would "receive blessings" if they took pity on the Pilgrims and assisted them, local Indigenous people showed them how to catch cod and use the parts not eaten as fertilizer. They also introduced the Pilgrims to quahogs, "steamers," and lobster, which they eventually ate in desperation.

Negotiations with Indigenous people led to our modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving, which would not have occurred if the Pilgrims did not sustain their stomachs and farms with cod.

The Pilgrims eventually established fishing stations in Gloucester, Salem, Dorchester, and Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Penobscot Bay, in what is now Maine. Cod was caught using handlines, with larger vessels sailing out to fishing grounds and then sending two men in dories to drop a line in the water. When a cod was caught, it was pulled up by hand.

Triangle Trade

Fish were cured by drying and salting and marketed in Europe. Then a "triangle trade" developed that linked cod to enslavement and rum. High-quality cod was sold in Europe, with the colonists purchased European wine, fruit and other products. Then traders then went to the Caribbean, where they sold a low-end cod product called "West India cure" to feed the burgeoning population of enslaved people and bought sugar, molasses (used to make rum in the colonies), cotton, tobacco, and salt.

Eventually, New Englanders also transported enslaved people to the Caribbean.

Cod fishing continued and made the colonies prosperous.

Modernization of Fishing

In the 1920s-1930s, more sophisticated and effective methods, such as gillnets and draggers were used. Commercial cod catches increased throughout the 1950s.

Fish processing techniques also expanded. Freezing techniques and filleting machinery eventually led to the development of fish sticks, marketed as healthy convenience food. Factory ships started catching fish and freezing it out at sea.

Fishing Collapse

Technology improved and fishing grounds became more competitive. In the U.S., the Magnuson Act of 1976 prohibited foreign fisheries from entering the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) - 200 miles around the U.S.

With the absence of foreign fleets, the optimistic U.S. fleet expanded, causing a greater decline in fisheries. Today, New England cod fishermen face strict regulations on their catch.

Cod Today

The commercial cod catch has decreased greatly since the 1990s due to strict regulations on cod fishing. This has led to an increase in cod populations. According to NMFS, cod stocks on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine are rebuilding to target levels, and the Gulf of Maine stock is no longer considered overfished.

Still, the cod you eat in seafood restaurants may no longer be Atlantic cod, and fish sticks are now more commonly made of other fish such as pollock.


CC Today. 2008. Deconstructing Thanksgiving: A Native American View. (Online). Cape Cod Today. Accessed November 23, 2009.

Kurlansky, Mark. 1997. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Walker and Company, New York.

Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Brief History of the Groundfishing Industry of New England (Online). Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Accessed November 23, 2009.

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Kennedy, Jennifer. "Brief History of Cod Fishing." ThoughtCo, Nov. 17, 2020, Kennedy, Jennifer. (2020, November 17). Brief History of Cod Fishing. Retrieved from Kennedy, Jennifer. "Brief History of Cod Fishing." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).