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Jennifer Kennedy

Creature Feature: Atlantic Cod

By November 19, 2012

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Nowadays, this is the week of the turkey. But back in the early days of American history, cod was the big deal. Native Americans were clued-in to the importance of cod long before Europeans, but once Europeans found out about the rich abundance of cod in Gulf of Maine waters, they set up shop here.

Cod have a greenish-brown to gray coloration, with lighter undersides. They have a line that runs down their side, and a barbel (whisker-like projection) from their chin. Cod as large as 6.5 feet have been caught, but today they are typically much smaller.

Even before Columbus arrived, the Vikings and Basques visited North America and harvested and cured cod.  Later, John Smith charted New England in the early 1600's, and labeled an area "Cape Cod."  As the Pilgrims were figuring out where to flee, they became intrigued by this label, and while they didn't know much about fishing, they thought they could profit from it.  That wasn't really the case - and as they were starving in 1621, British ships were  filling their holds with fish off the New England coast.

Soon, Native Americans took pity on the Pilgrims and assisted them, including showing them how to catch cod, and use it as food and fertilizer. They also introduced them to other edible marine life, such as lobster, quahogs (hard shell clam), and steamers (soft shell clam).

Negotiations with the Native Americans led to our modern-day celebration of Thanksgiving, which would not have occurred if the Pilgrims did not sustain their stomachs and farms with cod.

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