William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts for much of the first half of the 1600s, from whom North Americans have inherited the notion of communal Thanksgiving (and incidentally my grandfather 26 generations removed) noted:
The major part [of the Pilgrims] inclined to go to Plymouth chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country (Cod; 67).
Fast forward a few centuries. Bottom trawling, longlining, and gillnetting during the 19th and 20th Centuries were probably the most responsible for cod’s population decline in North America. Faced with the same great abundance that had helped bring settlers to Cape Cod, huge fishing companies acted rationally to maximize their own gain, taking advantage of the bountiful commons, and this led to ruin. With the near disappearance of cod came the absence of herring, capelin, humpback whales, and squid.
Gadus morhua, the omnivorous, open-mouthed, bottom-feeding cod, has in the last century reached population numbers in the mere hundreds of thousands where there used to be countless millions. In 1885, the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture stated, “Unless the order of nature is overthrown, for centuries to come our fisheries will continue to be fertile” (Kurlansky; Cod; P32. 1997).
And at the time, the Ministry had no reason to believe otherwise. Cod had been thriving off the coasts of Newfoundland long before Vikings arrived in the 10th Century, and had maintained staggering numbers in the hundreds of years since then.
In his The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin describes the tragedy using the analogy of an open pasture for cattle where each herdsman acts rationally to maximize his own gain. “Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush,” he claims, and this certainly proved to be true in the case of cod.
His only suggested remedies to the Tragedy of the Commons were controls by privatization or government action. According to Kurlansky, “In July 1992, the Canadian government closed Newfoundland waters, the Grand Banks, and most of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to groundfishing.” So government action has been taken. As I read more of Kurlansky’s biography of the fish that changed the world, I will continue to share the links between Hardin’s famous thesis and the story of cod.