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I Read a Book about a Fish

Published on Wed, 04/24/2019 - 10:53am
Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

It seems you can find everything at Mid-Continent Public Library’s branches today! From books, movies, and online resources to fishing poles! Wait, what? Yes, at a few MCPL branches, including the Antioch Branch, customers can check out fishing poles and tackle boxes. And now that the weather seems to finally be warming up (fingers crossed), it’s a great time to use them.

Now I have never done much fishing myself, despite the fact that I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, which has five lakes. My grandfather, however, was an avid fisherman. My grandparents had a house on Lake Superior, and one of my best memories of going to visit was getting to taste his delectable smoked fish. The truth is that my primary interest in fish has always been eating them. So I sort of surprised myself when I decided to read a book about cod.

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky is a fascinating tale about the effect this one fish had on the world and how it actually altered the history and economies of many nations. It also describes the gradual decline of this once abundant species. Moreover, the decimation of cod populations through overfishing has transformed the lives of those who come from traditional fishing families. Many who expected to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors must now learn a different way to earn a living.

The impact of this one fish is astounding. For example, Kurlansky describes its relationship to slavery. When the seas were still teeming with cod, this cheap and plentiful food source was used to help maintain large slave populations in places like the Caribbean. Then there were the wars. It is hard to believe that even as recently as the 1970s, there were armed conflicts that nearly ignited because of the right to fish cod. Iceland and Britain almost exchanged fire on several occasions.

Cod is also a story of hubris and the firm belief that we could never exhaust this seemingly endless resource. According to the author, even when there was blatant evidence that cod stocks had been depleted, the world seemed to remain in denial. Because cod are bottom feeders that eat pretty much anything, including baby cod, it was very easy to maintain a large population. This led to the false assumption that no matter what numbers of these fish were taken out of the sea, they would always be able to naturally replenish themselves.

Another surprising fact discussed in the book is how the fishing industry has come to rely heavily on technology, replacing environmental clues that were once used to identify migration patterns with sonar and other high tech devices. It never occurred to me how much one fish could affect the world!

Cod is a fascinating book, and I think that it teaches a great lesson about not taking what nature provides for granted. Fishing is still a wonderful pastime and can be done in a way that does not harm the environment. The joy of simply going to a river or lake with a pole in your hand can be a rewarding experience. So stop by the Antioch Branch today to check out a pole, or if you’re not a fisherman, a book about a fish like I did!

Pamela M.
Antioch Branch

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I contribute to a podcast called the Fish Nerds, and this was our first official Fish Nerds Book Club book! I even went so far as to make a traditional Portuguese salt cod recipe.

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