Carved Cod-in-a-Coffin

This handmade object—a carved likeness of a miniature cod fish lying in a wooden coffin—was made by fisherman Dan Murphy of Dunville, Newfoundland. Made in response to Canada’s moratorium on cod fishing, Murphy sold these items at local flea markets and from his home. This folk art cod-in-a-coffin, carved from wood and lined with fabric, represents the death of many Newfoundlanders’ livelihood. The fishing ban was declared on July 2, 1992, in an attempt to replenish the distressed levels of North Atlantic cod. Since then, over 40,000 fishers and workers at processing plants in Canada have lost their jobs.
The Canadian province of Newfoundland, like coastal New England in the United States, has a long history of cod fishing. When John Cabot first explored the region in 1497, he reported that cod off the rocky coast of Newfoundland were so plentiful that his crew could scoop up loads of the fish in buckets. Exploration and settlement of the area followed, and, over the course of the next four centuries, the North Atlantic fisheries became major industries that supported a significant number of families and communities in Atlantic Canada and along the New England coast.
In the 20th century, as new technology increased the efficiency of harvesting, the population of cod and other species in the North Atlantic began to decline. Before the 1960s, around 150,000 to 300,000 tons of cod were caught each year. But with the rise of diesel-powered factory trawlers, millions more fish could be hauled in and trawlers from all over the world converged in the productive waters of the North Atlantic. In 1977 foreign trawlers were banned, opening the door for the expansion of Canadian and American fishing fleets. But within a generation, the stocks of cod were depleted to the brink of collapse. The Canadian government reacted by banning cod fishing. The moratorium was extended indefinitely in 1993, giving jobless fishers little hope for a return to their way of life. According to a 2007 study, the North Atlantic cod population was estimated to be at one percent of its 1977 numbers.
Object Name
sculpture, folk
date made
date of fishing ban
foreign trawlers banned
Murphy, Dan
Physical Description
wood (overall material)
textile (inside coffin material)
overall: 3 1/4 in x 15 7/8 in x 5 1/4 in; 8.255 cm x 40.3225 cm x 13.335 cm
Canada: Newfoundland and Labrador, Dunville
Associated Place
Canada: Newfoundland and Labrador, Newfoundland
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Cultures & Communities
Natural Resources
On the Water exhibit
Contemporary United States
See more items in
Work and Industry: Maritime
On the Water exhibit
On the Water
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Dan Murphy
Publication title
On the Water online exhibition
Publication URL

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