By Paul Greenberg
As the first chill of winter descends on the Northeast and the traditional cold-weather codfish run starts in earnest, fishermen and scientists are again at odds, debating whether the once fantastically abundant North Atlantic codfish populations are finally rebuilding — or hurtling inextricably toward collapse.
But even as regulators parse a recent gloomy assessment of Gulf of Maine codfish populations, the entire question of the commercial future of cod may soon become moot. Cod and other wild-caught whitefish, for centuries a staple of the Western diet, are on the way out.
Not long ago, any kind of colorless, neutral-tasting fish product sold in the United States or Europe (“whitefish” in fishing industry parlance) was made out of one of several wild species of the taxonomic order Gadiformes: cod, pollock, haddock, hake, take your pick. Over the eons, these fish came to congregate in the cooler latitudes in large enough numbers for fishing to transform itself from an artisan practice into an industry.
Largely thanks to the gadiforms, fish itself was also transformed — from a regionally specific menu item into a nameless transnational protein product. But beginning in the 1990s, right around the time the term “outsourcing” was entering the vernacular, two new fish appeared from the developing world that are remaking the whitefish portfolio.