Cod, Colonialism, and the Anthropocene

Scroll this

This blog post was originally published as a ‘Snapshot’ in Environment and History (28.3, August 2022) and on the White Horse Press Blog.

…the number of which [the codfish] seems to equal that of the grains of sand which cover this bank. For more than two centuries since, there have been loaded with them from two to three hundred ships annually, notwithstanding the diminution is not perceivable. It might not, however, be amiss to discontinue this fishery from time to time.  

Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix, Journal of a Voyage to North-America  (1720) (London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1761), p. 70.

I didn’t take the fish from the goddamn water.

John Crosbie, Bay Bulls, Newfoundland, 1992. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Crosbie Calls Cod Moratorium His Hardest Political Moment’, 27 June 2012.

Pierre de Charlevoix, a French explorer traveling across North America, and John Crosbie, Canada’s Minister for Fisheries and Oceans, were separated by almost three centuries. However, they spoke of the same place, and of the same fish. Charlevoix marvelled at the great shoals of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) that roiled Newfoundland’s Grand Banks; by 1992, though, when Crosbie spoke – a heated retort to protesting fishers in the small Newfoundland town of Bay Bulls – there were almost no more of the fish left to catch. 

A drawing of an Atlantic Cod.
Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). Altered and prepared plate from the NOAA Photo Library. Wikimedia Commons.

Crosbie was in Newfoundland to complete what he later called the most difficult task of his political career: the day after his Bay Bulls confrontation he announced a total moratorium on cod fishing in Atlantic waters, in effect, ending the fishery to save the fish. The cod moratorium shuttered a centuries-old industry, threw tens of thousands out of work, and consigned fishing outposts across Canada’s Atlantic provinces to economic ruin. In the three decades since, the moratorium has become a watershed in Canadian history, while the story of the cod’s near extinction has become a cautionary tale for fisheries the world over.1 Post-mortems of the fishery emphasise how regulatory bungling compounded the devastating efficiency of twentieth-century fishing technology: new sonar-guided trawlers actively chased cod, on-board pre-processing allowed these ships to carry bigger catches, and fast diesel engines extended their range. The Canadian government, sensing economic opportunity after the 1977 extension of the oceanic economic exclusion zone, subsidised fleet modernisation. Regulators calculated landing limits based on the catches of the most efficient trawlers and, in doing so, vastly overestimated fish numbers even as stocks were destroyed.2 Simply put, too many fish were taken from the sea.

In many respects, the story of the Northern cod is an archetypal story of ecological disaster: twentieth-century excess begets environmental catastrophe; overfishing destroys the fish. Yet, testimonies like Charlevoix’s gesture toward a history of colonial extraction that extends far back. How, then, to understand the precipitous decline of the Northern cod as both metonym for contemporary crisis and an ecological tragedy with deep historical roots? 

Cod and the Anthropocene

Northern cod are just one of many forms of life we have nearly exterminated in the relentless search for value in nature – whales, beavers, bison, the list goes on. From the vantage of the twenty-first century, this loss of life appears as part of the so-called sixth great extinction, a constitutive symptom of the bundled effects of human action on the biosphere increasingly diagnosed as the Anthropocene. This proposed geological epoch, suggested over a decade ago to foreground the totalising and transformative effects of human action on the earth, remains controversial. Researchers debate both if the Anthropocene should be acknowledged as a new epoch and when such an epoch should be understood to have begun, suggesting dates as far ranging as the beginnings of agriculture, the colonisation of the Americas, or the industrial revolution.3 The most prominent proposals, though, argue the Anthropocene should be tied to the ‘great acceleration’ of the twentieth century, an explosion in population growth, petrochemical consumption, carbon dioxide levels, and countless other indicators of human intervention at the planetary scale.4

In many respects, the story of the Northern Cod looks like this version of the Anthropocene. Consider a graph of estimated cod-landings off Newfoundland through the last five centuries (Figure 1). Until roughly 1960, this graph traces fluctuating but steadily increasing catches. In the middle of the twentieth century, though, catches arrow sharply upwards, mimicking indicators like atmospheric carbon, global temperature and petrochemical use characteristic of the ‘great acceleration’ and diagnostic of the twentieth-century Anthropocene. So great is the spike in catches that it seems to render all that came before it irrelevant. 

A graph showing Approximate total Northern Cod catch from 1500–2011 by weight.
Figure 1: Approximate total Northern Cod catch from 1500–2011 by weight.5

Graphs like this offer a compelling visualisation of human intervention on the planet; yet, as geographer Alison Davis and anthropologist Zoe Todd argue, they cannot communicate the nuance of human interaction with the environment. These ‘hockey stick graphs’, Davis and Todd write, fail to ‘register the very real differences between peoples, governments, and geographies in their complicity’ in environmental crisis. Instead, they ‘bind the whole of humanity together into one horrifying reality’.6 Moreover, as Davis and Todd emphasise, by foregrounding the ‘great acceleration’, such graphs (and the twentieth-century Anthropocene they index) obscure that violent extremes tied to recent decades in much Anthropocene discourse – displacement, mass death, environmental degradation – began long before the twentieth century for Indigenous peoples subjected to genocide and dispossession in the face of colonial expansion. From this perspective, the Anthropocene is a useful analytic only if it grapples with the political valences of specific human actions on the biosphere, including at timescales that predate the ‘great acceleration’.  

The cod-graph differs from other Anthropocene-indicators in one respect. Where most ‘hockey-stick graphs’ escalate through the present – presumably, threateningly, into infinity – the cod catch-line collapses; first, precipitously and then, at the institution of the moratorium, to zero. This collapse emphasises cod mortality, redoubling attention on the twentieth-century spike in catches in the context of looming extinction. Attending to Davis and Todd’s analysis, though, recalibrates attention away from that spike. If contemporary crises emerge from a colonial world order that unevenly distributes benefits and harms and has done so for centuries, then to fully understand the diminution of the cod requires following the line on that graph back in time. It demands a shift in perspective from Crosbie’s moratorium to the colonial fishery that so astounded Charlevoix. 

A Brief History of the Cod Fishery

Codfish drying on the Newfoundland waterfront, pre-1892.
Figure 2. Codfish drying on the Newfoundland waterfront, pre-1892. Courtesy Archives and Special Collections, Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University (03.02.003). 

The first Europeans on Atlantic shores were there to fish cod; Basque fishermen may have pursued Grand Banks cod even before Columbus stumbled into the Caribbean. Beginning at the turn of the sixteenth century, though, the Newfoundland fishery became a full-fledged industry. Wealthy Europeans put their capital to work outfitting ships, hundreds of which arrived on Atlantic shores each spring. These boats coughed up crews who built seasonal camps – cabins, cookhouses and drying racks. Through the summer months, men rowed from these camps in small boats and dropped baited lines to tempt the cod; on a good day, a pair of fishers might haul in well over a thousand fish.  Shore crews gutted, split, salted and dried the catch. Merchants sold the product into ever-hungrier European markets. From its beginnings, this fishery was an unrelenting colonial project to extract calories from the ocean and, by transporting that energy the world over as dried saltfish, turn it into wealth­.

Among the first sustained European settlements in the places that became Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and New England were essentially continuously occupied fishing camps. In Newfoundland, English colonists began to overwinter in the first four-season outposts around 1620; by 1680 permanent residents caught and processed around a third of the island’s export.7 These colonies – called ‘fishing plantations’ in the vernacular – transformed the island. Colonists forced the native Beothuk people into the interior, where settler attacks and infectious disease – two vectors of violence with the same colonial origin – destroyed the entire people. Fishers reshaped coastal forests as they built and rebuilt camps. They hunted seabirds, including the now-extinct Great Auk, for food and bait. And, of course, the fishing industry reshaped cod stocks: analysis of bones from Newfoundland processing sites demonstrates that fishers were hooking significantly smaller fish by the middle of the eighteenth century. Seemingly, older and larger fish – the most reproductively successfully – were already fewer in number.8

As they pulled cod from the ocean, fishers scattered along North Atlantic shores buoyed global webs of commerce. Merchants took cod flesh, converted by salt and wind into long-lasting planks of protein, and transformed it into countless other commodities in a global marketplace: European Catholics exchanged fruit and wine for cod to eat on meatless days; slavers in West Africa used cod to purchase human lives; and prospectors in the Sierra Nevada goldfields provisioned their expeditions with the fish. Most especially though, dried salt-cod fed enslaved workers on Caribbean sugar plantations. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, hundreds of ships carrying the lowest grade of ‘refuse fish’ sailed each year from the North Atlantic to the West Indies. Slavery combined with cheap fish made for cheap labour, which in turn made for cheap sugar. Some of this sugar returned to the Northeast and became rum in New England distilleries. More of it, though, was sold into Europe, where it sweetened jam and tea – a new meal-of-empire that fuelled the ever-growing underclass of industrial-revolution factory workers. Via cod, North Atlantic calories were thoroughly entangled in globalised systems of extraction and trade that re-shaped both northern oceans and the broader early-modern world.9

Some Final Thoughts 

For centuries, calories from the North Atlantic flowed to hungry mouths the world over. Over time, saltfish gave way to chilled filets, fish-sticks and the filet-o-fish, just as small dories were replaced by sonar-guided trawlers. Across these transformations, though, the Northern cod supported a maritime economy built around catching and processing the fish. Certainly, the catches that directly preceded the moratorium were of exceptional magnitude, but in many respects the intense exploitation of the twentieth century followed the same logics as the fishery executed by early colonists: This fishery was always industrial, always resolutely global and always had an ecological cost.

This fishery was always industrial, always resolutely global and always had an ecological cost.

In this sense, figures like Pierre de Charlevoix, travelling the Grand Banks in the eighteenth century, and John Crosbie, a minister of the Canadian nation-state at the close of the twentieth, belong to the same story – a narrative within which the collapse of the cod does not so much index a singular horizon of overfishing as it does the cumulation of a centuries-long pattern of ever-increasing exploitation. This version of the cod’s story suggests that we should be cautious of historical frames that too radically break present from past. Told thus, the cod’s story extends back in time and out from the North Atlantic. This story includes generations of fishers who built a way of life around catching the fish. But it also includes the Beothuk, murdered in the face of European expansion. And it includes miners fuelled by North-Atlantic calories that dug gold from California hills while advancing a parallel genocide against the Native peoples of the Pacific. And it includes enslaved Africans who ate cod while forced to labour on Caribbean sugar plantations, building the wealth that drove the industrial revolution. And of course, this story includes the cod themselves, nearly eradicated by centuries of exploitation. Evidently, the fish are resilient: regulators now adjudge the stocks sufficiently robust to support a small residential fishery, and a few thousand tonnes are caught each year. It remains unclear, however, whether the fish will thrive in warming oceans, or if cod will again number equal to the ‘grains of sand’ on the Grand Banks.


Thanks to Beth Grávalos, Haeden Stewart, and Damien Bright for generous comments, and to Sarah Johnson and Karen Jones for editorial support.


1 On the moratorium as watershed, see Max Liboiron, Pollution Is Colonialism (Duke University Press, 2021), pp. 113–56.

2 Dean Bavington, Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

3 Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London New York: Verso, 2017).

4 Will Steffen et al., ‘The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration’, The Anthropocene Review 2 (1) (2015): 81–98.

5 Data from Rebecca Schijns et al., ‘Five Centuries of Cod Catches in Eastern Canada’, ICES Journal of Marine Science 78 (8) (2021): 2675–83.

6 H. Davis and Zoe Todd, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME 16 (2017): 766.

7 Peter Edward Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), p. 40.

8 Peter E. Pope, ‘Early Migratory Fishermen and Newfoundland’s Seabird Colonies’, Journal of the North Atlantic, (2009): 57–74; Matthew W. Betts et al., ‘Zooarchaeology of the Historic Cod Fishery in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada’, Journal of the North Atlantic (2014, no. 24): 1–21.

9 Cyler Conrad et al., ‘Finny Merchandise: The Atlantic Cod (Gadus Morhua) Trade in Gold Rush-Era San Francisco, California’, Journal of Anthropological Research 77 (4) (2021): 520–49; Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, A Penguin Book History (New York: Penguin, 1998).

The following two tabs change content below.

Sandy Hunter

Sandy Hunter is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Latest posts by Sandy Hunter (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.