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Where Can You Find an Enormous Cod?

The Fish
Robin Hood's Bay, North Yorkshire

Listed: 2006
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Fish

While tucking into their takeaway fish and chips, visitors to the pretty North Yorkshire village of Robin Hood's Bay may wonder at the size of a collection box shaped like a cod standing on its tail. This is 'The Fish', perhaps the oldest public collection box still in service for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which was listed by us in 2006.

The Fish collection box
© Mike Kirby and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

A 110-kilogram fish

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), founded in 1824, was originally funded by wealthy philanthropists. It was not until the late 1880s that fundraising from the general public began in earnest. Most RNLI collection boxes date to the 20th century - typically, reused cases from wartime mines. The Fish was crafted in 1886 at Batts Iron Foundry in neighbouring Whitby, a gift from a local ship owner in support of Robin Hood Bay's lifeboat station. Local legend says that, if you put a coin in the fish's mouth, it will wag its tail - but it does this so quickly that no one has ever seen it move!

The cast-iron Fish stands about 1.2 metres tall and weighs just over 110 kilograms. Perhaps the most remarkable fact is that, in the 19th century, real cod were caught that were even larger (up to 2 metres long) and nearly as heavy (up to 90 kilograms) as The Fish. These fully mature specimens could be up to 60 years old.

The Grand Banks fishery

Such large fish were not to be found in the North Sea however, but were caught by English fishermen on the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. This fishery was first reported by John Cabot who noted in 1497 that it was so rich that you could fish by merely dragging a basket through the water on a rope. Later historical accounts record the occasional catch of cod fish the size of a man.

The richness of the Grand Banks led to its exploitation by fishermen from across Europe, who preserved the cod for the journey home by salting and drying them. It is estimated that, between 1600 and 1800, some 200,000 tons of fish were caught off the Grand Banks every year.

Technological advances in the 20th century led to the development of fishing boats that could catch as much off the Grand Banks in a day as had previously been caught in an entire season. Factory ships would spend weeks at sea, using sonar to locate shoals, then processed and froze tons of fish onboard. This led to a dramatic increase in catches, with the same amount caught in the 15 years between 1960 and 1975 as was caught in the first 200 years of the fishery.

Cod fishing today

By 1992 stocks of cod had collapsed to less than 1% of their number in 1960 and it was thought that there were no adult breeding fish left. The Grand Banks fishery was closed by the Canadian government, but stocks still have not recovered more than 20 years later.

Cod remains a commercially important species harvested elsewhere in the North Atlantic, including the North Sea, but individual fish rarely weigh over 15 kilograms. In fact, the average fish is now only 11 kilograms - a tenth of the weight of 'The Fish' at Robin Hood's Bay.

Frontage of Robin Hoods Bay Fisheries shop
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