Early explorers and settlers were amazed in the diversity and abundance of fish and seafood along the eastern and western coasts of North America. The main fish in the English diet was cod (species within the Gadus genus), which was plentiful, especially off the coast of New England. New England developed a large fishing fleet and caught a variety of fish.
The cod that wasn’t consumed fresh was salted, barrelled, and shipped to other colonies, especially the sugar islands in the Caribbean, where salt cod became a core ingredient in the diets of slaves. Immigrants to America in the 19th century brought their culinary fish traditions with them. Swedes and Norwegians, for example, ate lye-cured cod called lutefisk, which occasionally appears on the menus of Minnesota restaurants today.
Cod was widely fished, and in the 20th century, cod stocks began to decline. In 1992 the Canadian government halted cod fishing off the Grand Banks, which had been a primary source for cod. To date, cod numbers haven’t significantly increased.
Many other fish were plentiful in American coastal waters. Sturgeon (species in the Acipenseridae family) were very common along the eastern coast of America. Colonial Americans caught sturgeon and dried them. This was then pounded and mixed with caviar and herbs to create a type of bread.
Sturgeon became an especially important food in the South, where it was consumed year-roundfresh in the summer and pickled in the winter. The fish was also common in Pennsylvania and New York, where it wasn’t much esteemed and wasn’t eaten at all when large. Sturgeon did produce caviar, and commercial production of the delicacy did reach enormous quantities in the 19th century.
Recipe: Fried Sea Bass
Score the fish on the back using a knife, and season them with salt and cayenne pepper. Cut some small onions into round slices, and chop fine a bunch of parsley. Put some butter into a frying-pan over the fire, and when it’s boiling lay in the fish. When they’re about half was done put the onions and parsley into the pan. Keep turning the fish the onions and parsley may adhere to either side. When quite done, put them into the dish in which they’re to go to the table, and garnish the edge of the dish with hard boiled eggs cut in round slices.
Make in the pan in which they’ve been fried, gravy, by adding some butter rolled in flour, along with a small quantity of vinegar. Pour it in the dish with all the fish.
Shad (fish of the Alosa genus) was also plentiful along the eastern coast, and one modern writer considers shad the nation’s founding fish Although shad is a bony fish, it too was widely consumed. Shad came by the millions into rivers along the coast to spawn. One fisherman claimed to have caught 5,000 shad in just one haul of his net in the Delaware River.
Shad was served as a delicacy in Philadelphia, where it was boned and cooked on oak or hickory planks. Shad was also boiled, broiled, baked, and salted. Salted shad was exported to the West Indies as food for slaves. Shad was taken out of the rivers in such immense numbers that by the mid-19th century, the decreasing number of shad in rivers became a matter of concern. By the 20th century, shad had largely disappeared.
Herring, which includes many species in the Clupeidae family, was also extremely common along America’s eastern shore. Herring filled the rivers in the spring as they migrated into rivers to spawn. A large number of people harvested herring, which was consumed fresh, smoked, dried. And pickled; during the spring, herring was sold by street vendors.
Herring was packed into waggons to be transported far into the interior, and all of America’s best restaurants served herring. During the 19th century, immigrants such as those from Scandinavia particularly appreciated pickled herring, food that was soon enjoyed by many Americans.
Slaves also consumed herring in America, where one plantation owner gave 20 herrings per month to his slaves during harvest time. Herring was slated to be sent to the West Indies as food for slaves. The supply of herring seemed inexhaustible, but it too began to disappear from America’s rivers and coastal waters in the 19th century.
Many other fish were plentiful along America’s coasts, this kind of flounder (a flatfish mainly in the Paralichthys genus) and haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus). These were caught in high numbers and were served in restaurants throughout America. These too were overfished, as well as their numbers significantly decreased.
One fish that American anglers didn’t eat was tuna, which frequented the East, West and Gulf Coasts. If tuna were caught by accident, they were sold cheaply in fish markets or more likely were converted into fertiliser or fish oil. This began to change as immigrant groups, including Italians and Japanese who ate tuna within their home country, began to arrive in America in the late 19th century.
Mainstream Americans only began to eat tuna after the canning industry in southern California began to can the fish in the early 1900s. Tuna became America’s most consumed fish by the late 1940s and has remained so ever since. The vast majority of tuna that Americans consume is canned, however at the end of 20th-century tuna steaks, tuna tartare, and sushi significantly expanded the way that tuna is consumed.
Vince Orsini bags and albacore tuna as Bob Knapp surveys their catch aboard the Wild Wave off the coast of Pillar Point, California.
The fish and seafood in the ocean seemed limitless. While state laws regulated and protected freshwater fish, no laws restricted sea fishing, and sport fishing clubs in America concentrated on freshwater fishing. This began to change in the early 20th century. The Catalina Tuna Club was the first sports fishing organisation that was concerned with saltwater fishing.
The club established rules for catching marine fish and began to lobby for legislation in California for protecting fishing grounds. While these efforts weren’t particularly successful, they did start a movement for the conservation of saltwater fish. The problem was that most countries claimed only a three-mile territorial limit and many areas that needed to be protected extended far beyond this limit. Another problem concerned migratory fish, for example, tuna, that came into coastal regions only during particular times of the year.
This became a visible issue in the 1930s when Japanese anglers had been catching salmon beyond the three-mile limit off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Salmon runs dropped off during the 1930’s, and American fishermen blamed the Japanese for the depletion of these stocks.
After World War II, President Harry Truman issued a proclamation declaring the United States controlled fisheries out to the continental shelf. This made it possible for the United States to regulate fisheries, including when fishermen could fish and just how much fish they could catch based on the extent to which wild stocks were depleted.