Mapping Cod Worlds

Lesson Plan from “Histories of the Global Marine Environment” Syllabus

Anthony Medrano

This lesson plan, based on a reading of Mark Kurlansky’s Cod, asks students to map the worlds of cod in order to reveal the scales and interstices of socio-ecological encounters. The lesson’s central point is that marine goods embody human histories in ways that seem unexpected and that these resources and their radials complicate conventional units of analysis—such as nations, areas, and regions.

Quick Description of the Course: Histories of the Global Marine Environment

Ocean life has long played a definitive role in shaping human societies, and yet rarely appears more than a passing curiosity in fields such as world history, food studies, and STS. From sea monsters to garbage patches, ocean life—in the broadest sense of the term—offers a powerful lens through which we might rethink and better understand the changing place of the sea in the human past and humans in ocean history. To this end, this course explores the emerging field of marine environmental history. It is not a class about maritime history, which has often treated the sea as a surface or battleground. Rather, this course approaches the ocean as a “contact zone,” that is as a place of socio-ecological encounter. It is organized around how people have come to know, work, and govern the world’s oceans across time and space.

Where the Lesson and Activity Fit within the Course

The following lesson fits within the last week of the thematic section “Working the Ocean.” This unit (Weeks 9-13) captures the global significance of aquatic life to the development of human societies within ocean basins, and how marine resources became part of the commercial fabric of the modern world.     

Learning Objective(s)

The learning objectives for this lesson plan will be for students to:

  • Illustrate the uses of cod and how these uses were connected to places and peoples within and beyond the Great Banks of Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Create short stories of the global marine environment through the production, exchange, and consumption of its resources (oysters, agar-agar, trepang, ambergris).

Lesson’s Readings 

  • Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (New York, Penguin Books, 1997, 294 pp.).
  • Jakobina Arch, “From Meat to Machine Oil: The Nineteenth-Century Development of Whaling in Wakayama,” in Jared I. Miller, (ed.) Japan at Nature’s Edge: The Environmental Context of a Global Power (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013), 39-55.
Click image for book review
Click image for book review

The main readings for the lesson are Kurlansky’s Cod and Arch’s chapter, “From Meat to Machine Oil.” These readings illustrate the changing relationship between ocean life and human society through two iconic resources: cod and whales. In particular, the readings focus on the geographical, cultural, and political worlds these saltwater creatures brought together as humans began to intensively work the sea for protein and power (quite literally). Industry, markets, technology, and their effects on marine ecologies are important themes in both readings.

Student-Centered Activity (45minutes)

In this activity, students will create cod maps to illustrate how the ocean’s resources have connected societies, environments, and histories. Students will break into small groups of four and work together mapping different parts of Kurlansky’s Cod: Part 1 (Fish Tales); Part 2 (Limits); and, Part 3 (The Last Hunters).

One of the striking insights of Kurlansky’s book is the argument that this fish was at the center of so many historical events and cross-cultural exchanges. He demonstrates how “salt cod, slaves, and molasses became commercially linked” (82). Indeed, the changing forms of cod reflect the shifting social environments in which this fish was procured, exchanged, and consumed. These are aspects of a commodity that will be replicated through the students’ cod maps.

Materials Needed

Materials needed include: large maps of the world, markers, brainstorming sheets, and notecards.

Set-Up (15 minutes)

Establish context for the activity through a “mini-lecture” on ocean resources and their far-reaching entanglements.

Emphasize the ways in which marine goods link places and people together, and how these connections in turn affect the ocean’s ecology.

Highlight a variety of marine products and their unsuspecting uses (such as ambergris as a key ingredient in perfumes during the early twentieth century, anchovies as fishmeal for industrial husbandry, or salmon genes in genetically-modified corn and tomatoes).

To get things started and to illustrate the activity through practice, ask the class to feed the instructor information about the commerce in whales based on the class’s reading of Jakobina Arch’s chapter, “From Meat to Machine Oil.”

Guiding Questions

  • Where did Wakayama’s whaling crews find their desired marine mammals?
  • What places were associated with migrating whales?
  • What kinds of commercial goods did whales turn into?
  • To what places did these products go, and who used or consumed them?

After the class maps out a whale, noting linkages, places, people, uses, and markets, then it is the students’ turn to do the same for cod.

Directions for Students (5 minutes)

Once the students are in groups of four, each assigned a section of the book, and large world maps have been distributed, the instructor should hand out the guiding questions below (one handout per group). In their groups, students should locate the fishing grounds of the Grand Banks and identify the time period of their particular part of the book.    

Guiding Questions for Activity

  • Draw linkages between the Grand Banks and the various “peoples” that came to fish these waters
  • What routes emerge through the cod trade?
  • What commodities are exchanged?
  • What places are connected?
  • What peoples are tied together?
  • What uses, technologies, and food cultures are linked to the worlds of cod?       

Recap (15 minutes)

Close the activity by having the groups narrate their cod maps to the class.

Guiding Questions for Recap

  • What places did they connect?
  • What uses did they identify?
  • What products were exchanged for cod?
  • How did time (period) change the web of linkages, places, uses, and people?
  • What sources did Kurlansky use?

After a discussion about their cod maps and the stories and scales of encounter they narrated, ask the class how maps help us think about or rethink the place of the ocean and its resources in human history? At the close of the discussion, and the unit, the class should begin the subtle pivot to the next section in the course: Governing the Ocean. Building on Cod and the unit on “Working the Ocean,” readings for this section will survey the consequences and implications of industrial consumption on the wealth and health of the marine environment. The readings consider changes in technology, politics, law, and society, and how these changes created the perilous state of our modern oceans.    

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