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The epic of Cod fishing

The cod fishing campaigns of Portuguese sailors from the 1930s until 1974 (the end the Dictatorship), became a legend. Since the 1930s, there were annual cod campaigns in Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland. The sailing ships set out in the Spring from Lisbon, where the blessing of the vessels took place, only to return home in Autumn. Thousands of men took part in these journeys. 

Fishing for cod with trawl-lines, onboard of the dories, in the cold waters of the Northwest Atlantic, was a human saga of epic proportions. This type of fishing became a myth through the intervention of the Dictatorship. Cod was considered a food of such importance to the people to be compared to bread. Trawl-line fishing with single-man dories was the main type of fishing of the Portuguese fleet. It lasted from the mid-19th century to 1974 when cod fishing made by vessels with dories and lines came to an end. 

Blessing of the ships

Dory fisherman’s journeys were very dangerous, mainly because of storms, fog and icebergs. They sailed hundreds of meters, or even a few kilometres from the mother-ship, to return many hours later, with the boat full of cod. When the weather was good and fish were abundant, a cod fisherman’s working day could last up to 20 hours.

At 4 am they were awakened with a prayer (Louvados), they had breakfast and then lowered in the dories. They searched for a place with plenty of cod. If they had enough baits, the best method of fishing was the trolley (a line comprising hundreds of baited hooks). If there was no bait or if it had run out, the fishermen would use a zagaia, a piece of lead in the shape of a fish that, when glowing, attracted the cod.

Fishermen sorting the cod

Once the dories were full, they returned to the mother-ship to unload the catch. During the unloading, the captain estimated the quantity that each man had caught. This was important because, at the end of the campaign, the salary depended on the quantity captured.

Onboard, the fish had to be processed before being salted. For this operation, fishermen were divided into groups, each with a specific task. First, the throater, using a knife, opened the cod from the throat to the navel and gave two blows to the head, one on each side. Then, the cod was passed to a second man, the beheader, who removed the head (whose faces and tongues were salted and the rest used for soup), the guts (thrown in the sea) and the liver used for the cod liver oil. A third worker, the splitter, with a knife stroke, continued the cut made by the throater, taking it to the tail. He cut the upper half of the backbone with two more blows, opening it up and giving it the flattened aspect by which we know it. Finally, the cod was washed in a tank of seawater.

After all the steps, the forkers were decisive in ensuring that the fish arrived in the hold, to be salted so that they could support the voyage. The salters worked in the hold, where fish was thrown on a canvas ramp. This job was extremely hard, although better paid than the fishermen. During the salting process, the salters stacked up the cod in layers of salt until they reach up the top of the hold. The long day ended with a hot cod soup called chora.  

Men worked on cod fishing vessels for more than thirty consecutive years. They were considered the last Portuguese heroes of the sea.

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