Discover the Official State Fish of Massachusetts

Gadus morhua, Atlantic Cod, Portrait,close up, detail, Ocean deepwater fish.
© iStock.com/TatianaMironenko

Written by Mike Edmisten

Updated: September 9, 2023

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Massachusetts has well over 50 official state symbols. That is far more than many states, but it does not set the record for the most symbols in a state. That honor goes to Texas, with more than 70 state symbols. 

In Massachusetts, the state symbols are quite diverse. There is an official Massachusetts state cookie (chocolate chip), state sport (basketball), state folk hero (Johnny Appleseed), state glee club song (The Great State of Massachusetts), and on and on. Along with these rather unique state symbols, Massachusetts has also named more traditional symbols, such as official state animals. A fish is counted among the nine state animals of Massachusetts, and it is the only fish that could properly represent the Bay State.

The official Massachusetts state fish is the Atlantic cod.

The fish typically features dark grey-green or red-brown colors on its back, which transition to a white belly.

Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua)

Range

The Atlantic cod is a medium to large saltwater fish found in the cold waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. The fish ranges from Greenland to North Carolina in the west to northern Europe in the east.

Younger, smaller cod are often found in shallower water than mature fish. Inshore cod may weigh 6-12 pounds. Mature cod are found typically found in 200-400 feet of water, though they can dive much deep. An average mature cod weighs around 25 pounds, though individuals weighing over 200 pounds have been caught.

Map of the Atlantic cod's range

The Atlantic cod inhabits the cold waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

©I, Aotearoa / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Appearance

The fish typically features dark grey-green or red-brown colors on its back, which transition to a white belly. The fish also has dark spots on its back and sides that fade toward the belly. The fish’s color is not static. Individual fish can change colors readily.

The Atlantic cod has three dorsal fins and two anal fins. The two anal fins mirror the second and third dorsal fins. It has a large head, blunt snout, and a barbell under the lower jaw. The barbel is a whisker-like sensory organ similar to those of a catfish.

The Atlantic cod’s coloration transitions from its very dark back to its white belly.

©xpixel/Shutterstock.com

Prey and Predators

The omnivorous fish feeds on plant matter as well as shrimp, mackerel, capelin, herring, and small haddock. Larger cod may also cannibalize smaller cod.

Atlantic cod are prey targets for large sharks.

Commercial Cod Fishing

Atlantic cod is an important commercial fish. It is one of the most popular fish for human consumption in the world and has been for centuries. 

Cod filets have a mild flavor with no foul “fishy” taste that many people find off-putting. The translucent fillets turn white when cooked and flake into large pieces. The fish is used in countless dishes and recipes worldwide.

Because of the insatiable demand for Atlantic cod, overfishing has depleted the historic population of the fish. Cod fishing through much of the twentieth century was done with minimal regulatory oversight. It wasn’t until later in the century that warnings began to be sounded regarding the state of the fishery. Those warnings have strongly intensified in the twenty-first century. 

There are two stocks of Atlantic cod: the Gulf of Maine stock and the Georges Bank stock. Both stocks are significantly smaller than they were a few decades ago. Specifically, the drop in the Atlantic cod population from the 1980s to today has been precipitous. The Atlantic cod fishery is now strictly managed as NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council works to sustain and rebuild the cod population.

Fresh codfish out of the Atlantic Ocean being filleted and cleaned on a splitting table in Newfoundland. The chef prepares the white fish for the market. Fillet and loins are being cut out of the fish

Atlantic cod is one of the most important commercial fish in the world.

©Dolores M. Harvey/Shutterstock.com

Recreational Cod Fishing

While the Atlantic cod is primarily a commercial fish, it is also popular with recreational anglers. There are strictly enforced regulations to protect the vulnerable cod fishery.

Per Massachusetts state law, Atlantic cod season is open from April 1-15 and September 1-October 7 in the Gulf of Maine. There is a strict limit of one fish per angler. The fish must measure at least 22 inches long. Any cod that does not meet the size requirements or that is caught in an unauthorized area must be immediately released unharmed. Anglers are strongly encouraged to use circle hooks to decrease the harm and possible mortality of fish that are released.

Saltwater anglers are also encouraged to target other species, such as haddock, instead of cod as officials work to protect and rebuild the precious Atlantic cod fishery in New England.

 codfish on fishing-rod on background of sea

Recreational cod fishing in Massachusetts is legal but strictly regulated.

©Krasowit/Shutterstock.com

The History of the Atlantic Cod in Massachusetts

The Pre-Colonial Period

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Atlantic Cod in the history of New England and Massachusetts specifically. Indigenous people fished for cod for hundreds, if not thousands of years priors to the arrival of European settlers.

The fish was so abundant that English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold named a Massachusetts peninsula “Cape Cod” in 1602 after he and his crew caught a “great store of codfish.”

The seal of Barnstable County, Massachusetts features an Atlantic cod.

The seal of Barnstable County, where Cape Cod is located, features an Atlantic cod.

©User:Simtropolitan; author of original layout unknown / Public domain – Original / License

Colonial Massachusetts

Cod fishing was likely the first profitable industry for colonial Massachusetts. The first export from the colony was said to be a shipment of cod fish. Atlantic cod was New England’s biggest export throughout the colonial period. According to the New England Historical Society, Atlantic cod accounted for 35 percent of all of New England’s income from overseas. Livestock was a distant second at 20 percent. 

The ripple effect of cod fishing was evident throughout the New England colonies. Not only was there money to be made directly from fishing, but the support industries of timbering, shipbuilding, ship-rigging, and sail-making also boomed.

Dried cod fish was in high demand because of its high protein content. New England shipped copious amounts of cod to Catholic states in Europe, where papal directives had led to more meatless days on the calendar. 

There was also a darker side to the Atlantic cod market. The dried fish was an inexpensive way to feed slaves. French slaveowners were particularly lucrative customers for the New England cod industry.

The Atlantic cod was so integral to the early New England economy that it appeared on stamps, coins, business insignia, and government seals.

dried chopped cod lies on a wooden table, top view.

Dried cod was inexpensive and high in protein, making it a highly-sought commodity that fueled the economy of colonial New England.

©kina8/Shutterstock.com

The Peak of the Massachusetts Cod Industry

The cod fishing industry peaked in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. There were nearly 1,300 cod fishing vessels, and around 12,000 Bay Staters were employed in the industry. The largest ports at the time were found in Boston, Barnstable, New Bedford, Salem, Nantucket, Newburyport, Beverly, and Gloucester. 

The State Fish of Massachusetts

Due to the integral part, the fish played in the history of the state, legislators passed a law that declared the Atlantic cod the official state fish of Massachusetts in 1974. The Atlantic cod became the third official animal symbol of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The black-capped chickadee was named the state bird in 1941, and the Morgan Horse was named the official horse of the state in 1970.

However, long before the Atlantic cod was named the official state fish of Massachusetts, legislators found a unique way to honor the fish. It came to be known as the “sacred cod.”

Large Atlantic Cod Underwater

The Atlantic cod was named the official state fish of Massachusetts in 1974.

©Miroslav Halama/Shutterstock.com

The History of the “Sacred Cod”

A pine wood carving of a cod measuring five feet long and weighing 80 pounds hangs in the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. This “sacred cod” has a history that predates the United States itself.

The Disappearing Cod

The first cod likeness to be hung in a Massachusetts legislative hall may have appeared as early as the 1720s, though that is unconfirmed. The first verifiable appearance of the cod effigy was sometime between 1748 and 1773. No one knows for certain what happened to this cod figure, but theft by a British soldier during the siege of Boston is a common theory. 

The Final Cod Carving

Another cod figure was carved to replace the one that was purportedly stolen during the American Revolution, and that is the one that hangs in the House of Representatives chamber to this day. 

The carving was displayed for the first time in 1784. The figure was then moved to the new statehouse in 1798 amid much pomp and circumstance. The fish model was wrapped in an American flag and escorted by the Sergeant-at-Arms‍ to the new house chamber, where it received a standing ovation in the representatives’ gathering.

The cod was originally hung over the Speaker’s desk. It was later moved to the rear of the chamber.

The "sacred cod" hangs above the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

The “sacred cod” hangs above the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.

©Liberma / CC BY-SA 4.0 – Original / License

Cod-Napped!

Beyond the possible theft by a British soldier, there have been a few other dramatic moments in the “sacred cod’s” long history. Specifically, there have been a couple of additional “cod-nappings.” 

The first was in 1933. Members of The Harvard Lampoon (the famous humor magazine of Harvard University) snuck into the House of Representatives chamber and cut down the cod figure. They carried it out of the hall in a floral box hidden among an arrangement of lilies

The Harvard Lampoon Building

The Harvard Lampoon Building is best known as the home of the humor magazine that shares its name.

©Beyond My Ken / CC BY-SA 4.0 – Original / License

This ignited a firestorm of speculation and false leads that took investigators on multiple wild goose chases, one of which even led them to drag the Charles River in search of the wooden cod.

News publications across the country picked up the story. For a brief time, it was one of the most talked-about stories in the United States. 

The saga ended with a phone call to Charles R. Apted, chief of the Harvard Yard police. He was directed to go to West Roxbury. Once there, he would be met by a car. He was to follow that car into the woods. Chief Apted did as the caller said, and that is when two young men, hidden by upturned collars and lowered hat brims, handed him the “sacred cod” before speeding away in their car.

Three of the cod figure’s fins were damaged in the ordeal. After repairs were made, the cod was rehung in the House chamber, but it was hung higher than before to prevent another theft. The plan didn’t work.

Cod-Napped Again!

Thirty-five years later, students from the University of Massachusetts used a stepladder to steal the cod yet again. This cod-napping was shorter and much less dramatic than the first, though. The cod was found a few days later in a hallway at the statehouse.

The Sacred Cod Today

Though it was through some dramatic days, the “sacred cod” hangs in the Massachusetts House of Representatives chamber today as a symbol of the history and prosperity of the Commonwealth. It is safe to say that Massachusetts would not be what it is today without the Atlantic cod.

Gadus morhua, Atlantic Cod, Portrait,close up. Ocean deepwater fish.

The Atlantic cod will be forever linked to the history of Massachusetts.

©Tatiana Belova/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Mike is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on geography, agriculture, and marine life. A graduate of Cincinnati Christian University and a resident of Cincinnati, OH, Mike is deeply passionate about the natural world. In his free time, he, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks.

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