Would you know a codfish if you saw one?
Basque whalers called Newfoundland the Island of Cod. When John Cabot came to Newfoundland over 500 years ago, he claimed they were able to catch fish just by putting a weighted basket in the water. For years, cod fishing was the way of life for many who lived in or came to Newfoundland. Those who fished the coastal waters would rise early in the morning, row out to their favourite fishing spot, let down their jiggers and if they were lucky would have a boatload in a few hours. They would row home, split and clean the fish and put them in a salt brine. The salted fish from the day before would be washed and then spread out on flakes to dry. In the late afternoon or if it was going to rain, they would all be gathered up again. It was a family affair.
Those who fished the Grand Banks, would go out in big schooners, 25 men at a time. They would row out from the schooner in dories to set out trawls, then split and salt the fish and put them in the hold. They could be away for weeks.
Later on fishing was mostly done by big boats and big nets which were dragged along the bottom and covered large areas and would catch more than just fish. This helped to mark the end of the cod fishery. In a period of forty years, cod stocks decreased by 97%.
Cod live in waters less than 400 metres deep from Baffin Bay south to Georges Bank. They usually migrate to shallower waters during summer, but some may live their whole life cycle in one bay. They will eat pretty much anything smaller than themselves, even their own young, and feed near the bottom. You can tell how old a codfish is by counting the rings in small “ear stones” in its skull. They take 5-8 years to mature and by then are usually 2-3 kg, and 60-100 cm long. The number of eggs a female lays depends on its size, but a 120 cm female may lay 2 million eggs. However, only 1 in every 2 million survives to reach maturity. The average age of fish caught is 7 years old.
Commercial cod fishing was banned in 1992. Although limited fishing was allowed a few years later, it was banned indefinitely again in 2009 because there was very little, if any, improvement.
Jigging – fishing with an artificial lure or a weighted, unbaited hook attached to a line and jerked sharply upwards. Common to jig for squid and then use it for bait.
Trawl – long row of fish hooks on one main line. Hooks are baited with pieces of herring, mackerel or squid and dragged behind a moving boat.
FIELD TRIP: If your local grocery store has a fish counter, have a look at what is there. Perhaps some of it has come from the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps you can go to a fish and chip shop for a treat.
BOOKS: Hold On McGinty, by Nancy Hartry, Doubleday Canada, 1997 (picture book), Saltbox Sweater, by Janet McNaughton, Tuckamore Books, 2001 (childrens fiction).