Cod, Atlantic Cod

Gadus morhua

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Gill or fixed net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Iceland
Stock detail — 5a
Certification — Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating one info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

The stock is in a healthy state, and fishing has been well-managed, with a Harvest Control Rule and a series of closures to protect juveniles and spawning stocks. However, catches regularly exceed Total Allowable Catches - although this does not currently seem to be impacting the stock. Better monitoring of the impacts of the fishery on harbour seals, seabirds and habitats such as sponges and soft corals is needed. While this fishery is less likely to have an impact on these species than others in Iceland (e.g. lumpsucker), it cannot be guaranteed that it is not impacting populations and better mitigation measures are needed. This fishery has been Marine Stewardship Council certified since 2012, although there are conditions on it relating to the aforementioned impacts (see Capture Methods tab for details).


Cod belongs to a family of fish known as gadoids, which also includes species such as haddock, pollack, pouting and ling. It is a cold-temperate (boreal) marine, demersal (bottom-dwelling) species. Also found in brackish water. Their depth range is 0 - 600 m, but they are more usually found between 150 and 200 m. They have a common length of 100 cm. Maximum length 200 cm. Maximum published weight 96 kg and a maximum reported age of 25 years. In the North Sea cod mature at 4-5 years at a length of about 50 cm. They spawn in winter and the beginning of spring from February to April. Fecundity ranges from 2.5 million eggs in a 5 kg female to a record of 9 million eggs in a 34 kg female. Sex ratio is nearly 50%, with slight predominance of females. The fish has a protruding upper jaw, a conspicuous barbel on the lower jaw (used to look for food), and a light lateral line, curved above the pectoral fins. Widely distributed in a variety of habitats, from the shoreline down to the continental shelf. Juveniles prefer shallow (less than 10-30 m depth) sublittoral waters with complex habitats, such as seagrass beds, areas with gravel, rocks, or boulder, which provide protection from predators. Adults are usually found in deeper, colder waters. During the day, cod form schools and swim about 30-80 m above the bottom, dispersing at night to feed.

Stock information

Criterion score: 0 info

Stock Area


Stock information

The stock is in a good state and fishing pressure is low.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) shows an increasing trend (currently around 620,000t) and is well above MSY Btrigger (220,000t) - the point below which management measures would need to be triggered. Fishing pressure (F) has declined in the last two decades and is currently at a historical low (F=0.3; Fpa=0.58). Recruitment has been relatively stable since 1988. ICES advises that when the Iceland management plan is applied, catches in the fishing year September 2019-August 2020 should be no more than 272,411 tonnes. The management plan lasts from 2015-2020, and calculates TACs (Total Allowable Catch) based on a Harvest Control Rule, with the aim of maintaining MSY. ICES considers it to be precautionary. The 2018/19 TAC was 264,437t and catches are not expected to exceed it. TACs have been set in line with scientific advice since 2010/11, but catches have exceeded TACs in all but 2 years since 1988.


Criterion score: 0 info

Management measures have successfully reduced fishing pressure and maintained the cod stock at healthy levels.

Improved management measures by Iceland for most of its major stocks, including cod, haddock, saithe, redfish and herring have resulted in decreased fishing mortality, increased stocks and reduced pressure on benthic habitats. Harvest Control Rules (HCRs) are in place for cod, haddock, saithe, golden redfish, capelin, spring spawning herring, ling and tusk, and are reviewed every five years. Iceland’s current cod management plan (HCR) lasts from 2015-2020, and sets TACs in line with the aim of maintaining MSY. ICES considers it to be precautionary. Catches in 2018/19 are not expected to exceed the TAC, and TACs have been set in line with scientific advice since 2010/11. Although catches have exceeded TACs in all but 2 years since 1988, it is usually by less than 10%, and has been by less than 5% since 2013. The main reasons given for this by the Icelandic government are: conversion of the quota of one species to that of another, transfers of quota between fishing years, allowance for undersized fish, catches of foreign vessels fishing inside the EEZ, and catches for research. Around 3,000t is caught by foreign fleets and the remainder (around 270,000t) by Iceland’s domestic fleets. Iceland’s scientific advisory body continues to recommend that when setting TACs, managers should take account of all fishing for individual stocks.

In addition to TACs, the following closures are in place:
Fishing is prohibited, for at least two weeks, in areas where more than 25% of the catch (by number) is small cod (less than 55 cm). However, the effectiveness of small areas closed for a short time most likely do not contribute much to the protection of juveniles.
Spawning areas are closed for 2-3 weeks during the spawning season for all fisheries.
Since 1998 the minimum codend mesh size allowed in the trawling fishery has been 135 mm.
The effects of these measures have not been evaluated.

There are a series of measures for monitoring and enforcement, including: publication of individual vessel quotas, independent verification and recording of landings, gear restrictions (and inspections), catch logs, prohibition of discarding in the demersal fishery. There is VMS and the coast guard has powers to intercept and inspect vessels. 25% observer coverage is required on Icelandic vessels on the high seas, and 100% of EU vessels in Icelandic waters.

This stock is MSC certified with conditions - see Capture Method tab for details.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.5 info

There are a number of measures in place to mitigate impacts of the fishery on non-target species, juveniles, and habitats. However, more needs to be done to guarantee that habitats aren’t being irreversibly damaged and populations of non-target species aren’t declining or being prevented from recovering owing to this fishery.

Fishing grounds for cod vary, depending on the gear type used, but generally stays within 100m-500m depth. 51% of catches in 2018 were from bottom trawling; 30% from longlining and 7% from gillnetting. Demersal seine and hooks or jigs each accounted for 6%. Longline and jiggers are most common in coastal areas while bottom trawls are used offshore, where the habitat is generally sandy mud to muddy sand. The largest cod are caught in gillnets, the smallest cod by longline and jiggers.

Various measures are in place to protect small fish and vulnerable habitats, e.g. regulations on the type of fishing gear allowed in different areas, minimum mesh sizes, and small-fish sorting grids. If the percentage of small fish in the catch or the by-catch exceeds guideline limits, the relevant fishing area may be closed within a few hours. If small fish or by-catch repeatedly exceeds guideline limits, the relevant area is closed for a longer time. Time, area and gear closures are in place to protect cod and other demersal species’ spawning grounds, and trawling is banned from some areas to protect corals. Sharks and skates are taken as bycatch in Icelandic fisheries, but catch rates are incomplete and the status of stocks is unknown. Bycatches in gillnets targeting cod have decreased in line with the decrease in effort. The endangered Atlantic halibut is impacted by fisheries around Iceland, so a mandatory release of viable halibut and a landings ban were introduced in 2012. Interactions with and impacts on Protected, Endangered and Threatened species by the fishery are very unlikely, apart from a small risk of seabird entanglement with longlines. The effects of otter trawling in Iceland have been investigated and the results suggested that only a few species were affected by it.

100% of Icelandic cod landed by the Icelandic fleet is MSC certified. There are conditions on the fishery relating to impacts of the three main gears:
For gillnet: better recording of harbour seals and mitigation measures to ensure that gillnetting is not hindering their recovery.
For gillnet and longlining: there are no formal measures to reduce seabird bycatch (although longliners tend to have some in place to reduce loss of bait and damage to catch), but with the most commonly caught species, the common guillemot, in decline, measures are required. Reporting has been poor but is improving, and observer coverage is ad hoc.
For bottom trawling: while there are protections for hard corals, protections for other biogenic habitats such as sponges and soft corals are not in place. Better monitoring of habitat impacts is required to guarantee that no irreversible damage takes place.


Based on method of production, fish type, and consumer rating: only fish rated 2 and below are included as an alternative in the list below. Click on a name to show the sustainable options available.

Basa, Tra, Catfish or Vietnamese River Cobbler
Cod, Atlantic Cod
Coley, Saithe
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Sturgeon (Farmed)


Government of Iceland, 2019a. Management Strategy and Harvest Control Rules Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019]

Government of Iceland, 2019b. Statement on Responsible Fisheries in Iceland. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019]

ICES, 2018. ICES Ecosystem Overviews: Icelandic Waters Ecoregion. Published 14 December 2018. doi: 10.17895/ Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019].

ICES, 2019. Cod (Gadus morhua) in Division 5.a (Iceland grounds). ICES Advice 2019, cod.27.5a, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4735. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019].

MSC, 2019. Marine Stewardship Council: ISF Icelandic Cod. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019].

MFRI, 2017. State of Marine Stocks and Advice 2017, Marine and Freshwater Research Institute. Cod. Published 13 June 2017. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019]

Reeves, S. A., Bell, J. B., Cambie, G., Davie, S. L., Dolder, P., Hyder, K., Pontalier, H., Radford Z. and Vaughan, D., 2018. An international review of fisheries management regimes. Cefas. Issued 2 August 2018. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019].

Sustainable Fisheries Partnership (SFP), 2015. FishSource profile: Atlantic cod Icelandic. Updated 9 December 2015. Available at [Accessed on 28.06.2019]