500 million tomcods!

A translation by Judith Turcotte.

I recently watched an interview on fishing the Atlantic tomcod also known as les petits poissons des chenaux in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade. The interviewee, with a wide smile, was proud to inform us that in a good season, 3 to 4 million tomcods were caught. Is it really something to be proud of? The tomcod, sometimes called frost fish, is the smallest specimen of the great family of cod. The number of catches surprised me and I immediately thought of uncontrolled overfishing. However the person interviewed quickly declared that more than 500 million tomcod appeared at the mouth of the Ste-Anne River every year to spawn there, leaving their eggs in the frazil crevices. An average size female can produce close to 8000 eggs. The Sainte-Anne River remains the principal known spawning ground. Very impressive numbers.

The same interviewee informed us that he estimated that the fish would leave the Sainte-Anne River around the 19th of February. The question that comes to mind: where do they go? After a bit of research, I learn that they are found in the St. Lawrence Estuary upstream from Baie-Saint Paul and Rivière-Ouelle. Previously, the tomcod was abundant and could be found as far as Lake Saint-Pierre and the Sorel islands; spawning grounds were found on the Saint-Maurice and Bastican rivers. The tomcod can no longer be found in these rivers and it would be reasonable to conclude that the specie is in difficulty in the St. Lawrence.

Where does this passion for fishing les petits poissons des chenaux come from? Fishing is in decline: this year, 400 cabins are in operation. There have already been up to 1200. Atlantic tomcod fishing is nothing new. Archeological research along the shores of Rivière Saint-Maurice near Trois-Rivières has shown that the Iroquois fished the Atlantic tomcod between the years 1000 and 1100. In the seventeenth century, the settlers fished the Atlantic tomcod during the holidays so, at the time, the cod became known as the holiday fish. The fishing at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade began in 1938.

If there is such a passion for the Atlantic tomcod, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion that it must be good to eat. A few of the recipes that I consulted start with the preparation of the Atlantic Tomcod: this preparation must be made with a frozen fish. With a good knife, the head and tail must be cutoff; the back and stomach must be trimmed and a thickness of three millimetres must be taken off. To finalize, you must remove the skin. The fish is now ready for cooking. During this preparation, it is possible to find in the female, caviar which is edible.

The fish can be served fried, in a chowder or au gratin. When it is served, there remains an important step: before eating, it is suggested to cut the backbone to remove the numerous bones in the fish. The fish measures between 15 and 30 centimetres and after preparation, the fillets are tiny. I can’t stop thinking of the number of fillets needed to satisfy a large appetite. A lot of work for not much. I admit to having never eaten a tomcod but I love perch fillets that are also a lot of work to prepare.

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