The Pacific cod fishery likely started a decade earlier than previously thought

An old, monochrome photo showing a fishing station in a small bay
Photo of Popof Island, Alaska taken in 1905. It’s considered to be the state’s first codfish shore station. (University Of Washington Libraries/Freshwater And Marine Image Bank)

The Pacific cod fishery may have started about ten years earlier than originally thought, at least on a small-scale level, according to a recent peer-reviewed study published in the Journal of Anthropological Research.

Currently, Pacific cod landings bring in over $100 million each year, and a majority of that comes from Alaska. But it hasn’t always been that way. For a long time, Atlantic cod is what most Americans ate.

In the mid 1800s, before the Pacific cod commercial fishery was thought to begin, Atlantic cod was sent thousands of miles — from ports like Boston or New York, across the Isthmus of Panama or even around Cape Horn in Chile — all the way to San Francisco, where it helped feed the hordes of people moving to the city during the California Gold Rush of 1849.

During the first year of the gold rush, the population of San Francisco sky-rocketed. People were hungry and rapidly exploiting local food sources, said Cyler Conrad, a co-author of the study.

A closeup of two fish vertebrae
A caudal vertebra from an Atlantic cod found at Thompson’s Cove pictured on the left, and a Pacific cod caudal vertebra from a contemporary comparative collection. (Photo courtesy Of Cyler Conrad)

Newspaper excerpts show massive amounts of Pacific cod being delivered to San Francisco around 1863, when the fishery is considered to officially have taken off. One account from the Daily Alta California in September of that year depicts a delivery of 15 tons of Alaska cod by famed Captain Matthew Turner, considered by many to be a “pioneer” of the Pacific cod commercial fishery. The study suggests that that cargo radically changed the San Francisco Pacific cod market.

But there are also older records that show smaller deliveries of Pacific cod — some dating as far back as 1853, according to Conrad.

An 1857 article in the San Joaquin Republican suggests that Washington state’s cod fishery could pose competition to that of Cape Cod.

“People were aware of those fish populations,” Conrad said. “There were clearly fisher people, likely fishermen, that were traveling to the northwest coast, traveling to Alaska, and they were already fishing cod 10 years prior to the establishment of this large-scale fishery.”

Evidence of a small-scale Pacific cod fishery is important, in part, because it’s likely there’s more Pacific cod bones out there, Conrad said. And now there’s new questions to be asked about how that cod got there and whether it’s from the Atlantic or Pacific ocean.

And it just so happens that one scientist on the team figured out a pretty efficient way to distinguish between Atlantic and Pacific cod, Conrad said.

“He took a detailed look at the caudal vertebrae from each of [the] comparative specimens … and found this sort of notch in this feature that seems to identify Pacific versus Atlantic cod,” Conrad said. “And that all came from the work focused in this study.”

The pieces of cod vertebrae they used were found during a regulatory archeological dig of a building in downtown San Francisco about 10 years ago. It was led by Kale Bruner, another co-author of the study and also a researcher who now spends some of their time working for Unalaska’s Museum of the Aleutians.

Bruner and the team pulled random samples as contractors gutted and renovated the hundred-year-old building, which sat above a former Gold Rush site known as Thompson’s Cove.

It was chock full of historic artifacts,” Bruner said. “The fact that we uncovered like a handful of cod bones in there — I happened to pick up a handful of cod bones — is pretty remarkable.”

It was a long, messy job. Bruner worked underground for roughly two years, reaching about 16 feet below sidewalk level. But, piece by piece, that work paid off: they collected over 65,000 artifacts, from things like a Galapagos tortoise bone to bottles of liquor, to almost 20 cod bones.

“We recognized that this was too important to just pack up and put in a warehouse and go and write a final report that nobody but the state archeologist would ever look at,” Bruner said.

The research team visually identified all 18 cod bones as Atlantic cod. Then they analyzed five bones using ancient DNA. Four of the five were confirmed to be Atlantic cod, but all of them are likely Atlantic cod based on their morphology, Conrad said.

They didn’t find any physical evidence of Pacific cod bones at that site. But their purpose was really to understand Gold Rush-era populations: what they hunted, imported and exploited.

And one major takeaway from this study is that they found a new way to identify between the two cod species, Conrad said.

“Now that we have these techniques available, and we’ve confirmed it in San Francisco, and we can identify these cod fish, I think we need to go back to these other records and try and understand what’s going on,” he said.

And in light of the discovery that the Pacific cod trade is nearly 10 years older than originally thought, that also raises a lot of new questions.

“What does this mean, perhaps for those initial populations, those initial stocks of fish, you know, for the Pacific cod fishery, especially out of Alaska?” Conrad said.

Conrad guesses there’s more Pacific cod bones out there, waiting to be excavated and analyzed, and with them even more questions to be asked.

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