Sacred Cod: The History and Future of a Massachusetts Industry

By Abigail Lindner

The term “cod” encompasses a number of fish types, including hake, pollock, and haddock. In New England, though, when people talk about cod, they almost always mean Atlantic cod. When cooked, the meat of Atlantic cod is firm and clean-tasting and, for preservation on long journeys, it holds up well when cured in salt [1]. With a winter milder and thus more fish-friendly than Newfoundland, in addition to a burgeoning population and plenty of internal markets, New England rapidly developed a dominant and prosperous fishing industry early in its history, with cod from the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank at the center [2].

In the 16th through 19th centuries, Georges Bank, located one hundred miles east of Cape Cod, was a remarkably rich source of cod. The higher levels of oxygen in its waters facilitated fish growth; in 1838, for instance, a 180-pound cod was recorded [3]! Cod fishery gained such prominence in New England, and Massachusetts in particular, that cod itself became a symbol of prosperity. In the late 1700s there was commissioned an almost five-foot-long, pine-carved cod to hang in the Massachusetts State House, to commemorate the importance of the fishing industry for the Bay Colony [4].

Unfortunately, the prosperity and importance of cod in Massachusetts is in decline, and has been for several decades. Overfishing has caught up with New England’s Atlantic cod industry.

History of Cod in Massachusetts 

Cape Cod, the “right arm” of Massachusetts, obtained its name from explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who visited in 1602 and marveled at the great abundance of fish in the bay. Since the colonial era, cod fishery has been integral to the welfare of the Commonwealth. While continental Europe had long depleted its cod stocks, Massachusetts had year-round production of the fish [5], with in-shore fishing in the winter and off-shore fishing in the summer [6]. 

The abundance and quality of the fish in the waters off New England made Atlantic cod America’s first major economic export, with buyers from Portugal, Spain, Southern France, and Italy [7]. Founding Father and future second President of the United States John Adams likened cod in New England to tobacco in Virginia, and it’s no exaggeration to say that cod built New England [8]. Many of the earliest independently wealthy Americans had their fortunes because of cod. Thanks to this industry, which was booming by the 1650s, Massachusetts quickly became the most flourishing American colony north of Virginia [9].

Going into the nineteenth century, New England was an international commercial power [10], with a fishing industry employing 1,300 vessels and 12,000 workers [11]. The largest ports in Massachusetts were in Boston, New Bedford, Barnstable, Nantucket, Salem, Beverly, Newburyport, and Gloucester. The last, Gloucester, could once boast to be the busiest fishing port in the world [12]. Provincetown, affectionately called P-town and located at the tip of modern-day Cape Cod, still claims to be the birthplace of American commercial fishing and the “seafood capital of the universe” [13].

Atlantic Cod Population Decline

After World War II, fisheries were overwhelmed by the amount of fish that came in. Because little fishing was done during the war years, the populations of cod and other species were given time to grow. Technologies developed during the first half of the century, some to support military operations, increased the efficiency of trawler fleets [14].

The feast was not to last forever, though, as many fishers hauling in tons of fish mid-century believed or hoped. Drag-netting vessels and refrigerated ships allowed fishers to catch more cod at a time; more boats, some European, were in the waters; and recipe innovations like fish sticks made cod more popular on the American table [15, 16]. Demand rose and the tools to meet that demand became more precise. Ultimately, the decline in Atlantic cod in the latter decades of the twentieth century traces back to unregulated overfishing encouraged by increasing demand [17]. 

Another factor contributing to the state of cod is environmental change. While Atlantic cod are thermal generalists, stable in water temperatures ranging from -1.5 to 20 degrees Celsius (about 29 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and thus more resilient to ocean warming and acidification than their temperature-constrained, Arctic cod relatives [18], a study in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank that used North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) suggested some correlation between elevated sea surface temperature and cod biomass. 

The NAO, an index of sea-level pressure differences between two regions of the North Atlantic, serves as the “dominant mode of climate variability” in this area [19]. Positive NAO phases indicate a strong pressure difference and are associated with warm conditions, including elevated sea surface temperature, in the Eastern United States and Northern Europe [20].

By combining NAO data and spring surveys for the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Columbia University found that a one-unit increase in the NAO index during a cohort’s birth year was correlated with a drop in biomass for that cohort one year later [21]. Moreover, this decline in biomass seemed to persist years after the one-unit increase: up to nineteen years in the Gulf of Maine and up to fifteen years in Georges Bank. 

The Future of Massachusetts Cod Fishing

In the early 1980s, the nationwide catch of cod weighed over 100 million pounds. By 2020, this total had declined 98%, with 1.6 million pounds of cod recorded for that year [22]. Today, Atlantic cod have been reaching sexual maturity sooner, at younger ages and smaller sizes, a common development response for species facing population threats [23].

Poor catches in New England waters have forced buyers to look for Atlantic cod overseas, to Norway and Iceland, or to substitute with comparable species, like haddock. Once a cornerstone of the Massachusetts economy, fishery managers now question the economic viability of cod, with rising fuel costs and smaller catches shrinking the return on investment [24].

In response to declining populations of Atlantic cod, conservation efforts have been undertaken, including catch limits, population monitoring, and no-fish zones. Unlike the United States’ northern neighbor Canada, who placed a moratorium on cod fishing on the eastern coast in 1992, though, Massachusetts has not gone so far as a ban.

As in many environmental issues, economic interests conflict with conservation efforts. In addition, with respect to cod, another, more deeply-rooted interest is at play: community traditions. Current and former fishers fear that the current measures to conserve cod will permanently damage the American fishing tradition and that a full moratorium would not only eliminate important generational jobs, but also kill the tradition outright.

Fishermen and scientists are often in conflict over the facts of the cod situation, but coordination between the two groups is crucial for meaningful progress [25]. Programs and opportunities in Massachusetts, like collaborative research through the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership and initiatives in the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute at UMass Dartmouth, are working to bring fishermen and scientists together to address the issues confronting marine ecosystems. With cooperation and education, the Atlantic cod of Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine might have a chance.

Thumbnail photo credit: Atlantic cod by Joachim S. Müller on Flickr 

Works Cited

  1. Gutkowski, G. (2019, November 14). The history of cod. On The Water. Retrieved 2022, June 28, from
  2. Kurlansky, M. (1997). Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. A.A. Knopf Canada. pp. 73-74.
  3. Bourne, R. (1989). The view from Front Street: travels through New England’s historic fishing communities. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 75.
  4. Celebrate Boston. (n.d.). The sacred cod. Retrieved 2022, June 28, from
  5. Gutkowski, 2019.
  6. Kurlansky, 1997, p. 74.
  7. Mitcham, H. (2018). Provincetown seafood cookbook, with a new introduction by Anthony Bourdain. Seven Stories Press. p. 9.
  8. Kurlansky, 1997, p. 74.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Kurlansky, 1997, p. 78.
  11. Celebrate Boston, n.d.
  12. Gotbaum, R. (2014, January 2). Why the cod on Cape Cod now comes from Iceland. NPR. Retrieved 2022, June 28, from
  13. Mitcham, 2018, p. 1.
  14. Kurlansky, 1997, p. 185.
  15. Gutkowski, 2019.
  16. Bourne, 1989, p. 33.
  17. Gutkowski, 2019.
  18. Dahlke, F.T., Butzin, M., Nahrgang, J., Puvanendran, V., Mortensen, A., Pörtner, H. & Storch, D. (2018). Northern cod species face spawning habitat losses if global warming exceeds 1.5°C. Science Advances, 4(11).
  19. Meng, K.C., Oremus, K.L. & Gaines S.D. (2016). New England cod collapse and the climate. PLoS One.
  20. Lindsey, R. & Dahlman, L. (2009). Climate variability: North Atlantic Oscillation.
  21. Meng et al., 2016.
  22. Whittle, P. (2022, May 10). Haul of Atlantic cod, once abundant, reaches new low. WBUR. Retrieved 2022, June 25, from
  23. Kurlansky, 1997, p. 203.
  24. Mitcham, 2013, p. 19.
  25. Bergman, M.M. (2020, July 3). Can New England’s cod fishing industry survive? The Guardian. Retrieved 2022, June 25, from