BRUSSELS (AP) — Half a century ago, a cook would chop a cod in half because it was simply too big to fit in the oven. Today, most fit easily in the frying pan.
Blame the decimation of the dinner plate on industrial overfishing of Europe's once plentiful waters. On Thursday, though, the European Union backed landmark legislation that could well prevent the commercial extinction of some of the continent's favorite fish.
A GOOD DAY FOR FISH
European parliamentarian Chris Davies didn't have to think twice about whether this was the best news for fish in decades. "Unquestionably yes. It is a complete change of thought," he said.
Environmental groups haven't been as upbeat in years. "This is a historic deal. It has a commitment to rebuild fish stocks and a legally-binding target to end overfishing," said Uta Bellion of The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit organization.
The plan — backed by representatives of EU member states, the European Parliament and the executive commission — compels the fishing industry to respect scientific advice on overfishing, to vastly reduce the amount of healthy fish thrown back into the sea, and to protect sensitive areas at sea. Ideas that now look like no-brainers were unthinkable for years.
"If we carried on, potentially 90 percent of all fish stocks would be unsustainable and at risk within the next decade," said Davies, a British Liberal Democrat who led the push for change.
Alarmist as it may sound, disastrous stock collapses have happened before. Overfishing off Canada's maritime provinces exhausted the world's richest cod grounds and the stocks are still in a desperate state.
Sylvie Vandercruys, who runs the Vimar fish restaurant close to where the breakthrough deal was brokered in Brussels, is dealing with the 21st century problems of a fish that has been a staple for 1,000 years in some EU nations.
North Sea stocks of cod, the emblematic fish in the Atlantic EU waters, have declined by roughly 75 percent over three decades and special campaigns to revive the species have long struggled. It stands as an example for many other species.
A few decades ago, cod could still be caught in abundance even by anglers just off the Belgian coast and it would be trucked into Brussels fish market within a day.
Now, Vandercruys has to look farther afield. "Most of my cod is no longer from Belgium, nor from the North Sea for that matter," she said. "We get a lot from Norway now."
Portugal, too, gets a lot from Norway nowadays, though the Portuguese once had a major fleet that went far beyond EU waters. And on Lisbon supermarket shelves these days you'll find cod from the Pacific too.
It has been such a staple for the Portuguese that they call dried, salted cod their "faithful friend." It has to be placed in water for several days and after that rehydration it offers up succulent white flakes — and a different recipe for every day in the year.
Despite the far-flung origins, cod's place at the table hasn't diminished. "We don't have any cod near us, but nobody cooks cod like us," said Joao Oliveira, the Grand Master of the Gastronomic Brotherhood of Cod, a group of enthusiasts in northern Portugal.
In Britain, cod has a place in people's hearts as part of the classic fish and chips combination. The country's fondness for fresh cod brought a spat over fishing rights with Iceland in the 1970s Cod Wars. Nowadays, underneath the sizzling batter may be fish brought from half a world away.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Even if Europe came out of World War II devastated, its seas were brimming with life. "German submarines were really good for cod stocks. No one went fishing," Davies said.
Within a decade though, progress hit — bigger and bigger vessels, better technology and ever more money to roam the seas. "We quickly had too many boats chasing too few fish," Davies said.
Stocks plummeted, and not only in the Atlantic. Bluefin tuna, the pride of the Mediterranean since Roman times, has seen its stocks drop by 80 percent over the past three decades.
With globalization, it seemed the whole world joined in. Prices skyrocketed. An auction in Tokyo last January illustrated why bluefish tuna have been overfished: The 222-kilogram (489-pound) tuna fetched a record $1.76 million.
For Vandercruys, too, prices have risen. Sole, the key ingredient for that French classic "sole a la meuniere," where the fish is fried in butter and a squeeze of lemon gives it a mouthwatering zest, has increased in price by almost 30 percent in barely as many years, she said.
Don't just blame the boats hunting for quarry. EU governments have often been accomplices as the scramble for the seas worsened over the years.
"The central problem is not the fishermen, but the regulators," said Mark Kurlansky, author of the classic 'Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.'
He said it was particularly problematic in Europe "because of the whole nature of the EU cutting deals between countries. If we give this to Spain, we give this to Denmark," he said.
Davies agreed. "Fundamentally, it has been ministers coming along to dance to the tune of vested interests, ignore scientific advice and appeal to their audience — not consumers, but fishermen. It has been a recipe for disaster," he said.
Yet after years of such horse-trading, Thursday's deal finally seems to alter the course.
Under the new plan, overfishing should end by 2015 for most species and by 2020 for all stocks, with a ban on approving catch quotas that are not in line with scientific advice.
"The next generation will have stocks to fish that are in a better state than that they are now," said Irish Marine Minister Simon Coveney, who represented the 27 EU nations at the talks.
The plan still needs the approval of the member states and the European Parliament, but since they were intensely involved in the negotiations that is not expected to be a problem.
Kurlansky, though, said there is still a tough road ahead. "The next problem: is the scientific advice going to be on the money," he said. "We are still learning through trial and error," adding climate change and the swirls of traveling fish stocks were still mysterious to all.
"It is not going to turn everything around in the next couple of years. There are no quick fixes on this one."
Barry Hatton wrote from Lisbon, Portugal.