Cod, Atlantic Cod

Gadus morhua

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Beam trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Celtic Seas (southern), Western English Channel
Stock detail — 7e-k
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: November 2020

Default red rating: Celtic Sea cod is at dangerously low levels, below the point at which its ability to reproduce is compromised, and fishing pressure is too high. The scientific advice is that there should be no catches of this stock in 2021, but it continues to be caught as bycatch alongside haddock and whiting in the area. There is no recovery plan in place, and so this criterion scores a Critical Fail and the rating is a default red. Management includes some area closures to protect spawning areas and minimum mesh sizes, but has not been enough to prevent the cod stock from declining further. The recent introduction of square mesh panels is not expected to improve selectivity or reduce Celtic cod catches. Atlantic cod is listed by OSPAR as a threatened and declining species in this area. Around 12% of Celtic Sea cod catches are by beam trawls, which penetrate the seabed, resulting in the abrasion of habitat features and bycatch of benthic species such as pink sea fans, corals and sponges.

Biology

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: Critical fail info

Celtic Sea cod is at dangerously low levels, below the point at which its ability to reproduce is compromised, and fishing pressure is too high. The scientific advice is that there should be no catches of this stock in 2021, but it continues to be caught as bycatch. There is no recovery plan in place, and so this criterion scores a Critical Fail and the rating is a default red.

There was an update to the methods use to assess this stock in 2020, but it has not changed the stock status. Following the 2020 stock assessment benchmark, it now appears that Spawning-Stock Biomass (SSB) has been fluctuating around MSY Btrigger since 2004, except from 2011 to 2013 - previously, the stock was thought to have been below Blim for most of this period. According to the new assessment, however, the stock has been below Blim (4,200 tonnes) since 2017, and was 1,587 tonnes in 2020. This is well below the target level of 5,800 tonnes (MSY BTrigger). Fishing mortality (F) has been above FMSY (0.29) since the 1980s, and exceeded Flim (1.13) in 2018 (when it was 1.15). In 2019 it was equal to Flim. Recruitment of young fish into the stock has been very variable over time, but has been very low since 2012, with a small peak in 2013.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach and precautionary considerations are applied, there should be zero catch in 2021. Zero-catch advice has been given for 2019 onwards, but cod is bycaught in other fisheries and so catches continue. SSB is expected to remain below Blim in 2021 even with zero catch.

The new stock assessment model used in 2020 has resulted in a slightly more positive perception of the history of the stock and new reference points. MSY BTrigger and Blim are roughly half of what they were in 2019, while FMSY has reduced by roughly 20% and FLim has increased by about 40%.

Management

There are a number of management measures for this stock, but they are generally not effective and certainly have not achieved a recovery of cod in this area. There is currently no recovery plan in place.

The EU multiannual plan (MAP) for stocks in in the Western Waters and adjacent waters applies to this stock. It does not contain any cod-specific measures, but it does allow for the fishery to be closed if BLim has been reached, as is the case with this stock. Cod is not a target species, but is caught as bycatch in haddock- and whiting-dedicated fisheries, and fishing mortality on cod is therefore difficult to control. In previous years, Total Allowable Catches (TACs) have been set higher than the advice (from 2015-2017, TACs averaged 150% of the recommended limit). From 2019 to 2021, zero catches have been recommended. In 2019, this stock was given a bycatch quota (TAC of 1,610 tonnes; catch of 1351 tonnes), on the understanding that a bycatch reduction plan would be introduced as soon as possible. The discard plan for demersal fisheries in South-West Waters was released in October 2019, but does not cover any cod stocks in the area. The Total Allowable Catch in 2020 was set at 805 tonnes.

TACs are set for divisions 7.b-c and 7.e-k, whereas the ICES stock assessment covers 7 e-k only. However, only small quantities are caught outside ICES Divisions 7e-k. Cod caught in the southern Irish Sea (division 7a South, rectangles 33E2 and 33E3) are considered part of this stock, so on average 18% of total Irish Sea landings have been reallocated over the past 5 years. This accounts for 1.4% of official landings in divisions 7.e-k over the past 5 years. This should be considered when setting TACs for the two management areas (divisions 7.a and 7.e-k).

Based on observer estimates, discards have averaged 16% of the total catch from 2015-2019, but have increased in recent years, with the 2019 figure being 29%. Discards are mostly composed of 1 and 2 year old fish. Most of the discarding has been by otter trawlers, followed by seine nets and beam trawlers.

Since 2005, ICES rectangles 30E4, 31E4, and 32E3 have been closed during the first quarter to reduce fishing activity on spawning aggregations of cod off North Cornwall, and this seems to have worked. The effectiveness of the closed rectangle off the Irish coast is less apparent due to a poorer understanding of spawning cod distribution. Technical measures applied to this stock are a minimum mesh size for beam and otter trawlers in Subarea 7 (Irish Sea, west and southwest of Ireland, English and Bristol Channels, Celtic Sea) and a minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) of 35 cm. Recent technical measures introduced in the Celtic Sea (square mesh panels) are not expected to significantly reduce catches of Celtic Sea cod or improve the selection pattern. This is because of the fast growth rate of Celtic Sea cod (age 2 fish range between 40 and 70 cm).


Both the EU and UK have fishery management measures in place, which can include catch limits, targets for population sizes and fishing mortality, and controls on what fishing gear can be used and where. In the EU, compliance with regulations has been variable, and there are ongoing challenges with implementing some of them. There was a target for fishing to be at Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2020, but this was not achieved. The Landing Obligation (LO), an EU law that the UK has kept after Brexit, requires all fish and shellfish to be landed, even if they are unwanted (over-quota or below minimum size). It aims to promote more selective fishing methods, reduce bycatch, and improve recording of everything that is caught, not just what is wanted. Compliance with the LO is generally poor and actual levels of discards are difficult to quantify using the current fisheries observer programme.

In the UK, it is too early to tell how effective management is, as the Fisheries Act only came into force in January 2021. The Act requires the development of Fisheries Management Plans (FMPs) (replacing EU Multi-Annual Plans) but there are no details yet on how and when these will be developed. FMPs have the potential to be very important tools for managing UK fisheries, although data limitations may delay them for some stocks. MCS is keen to see FMPs for all commercially exploited stocks, especially where stocks are depleted, that include:
Targets for fishing pressure and biomass, and additional management when those targets are not being met
Timeframes for stock recovery
Technologies such as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) to support data collection and improve transparency and accountability
Consideration of wider environmental impacts of the fishery

Capture Information

Around 12% of Celtic Sea cod catches are by beam trawls, which penetrate the seabed, resulting in the abrasion of habitat features and bycatch of benthic species such as pink sea fans, corals and sponges. The main mitigation measures are Marine Protected Areas, some of which are designated for benthic features. If those MPAs were found to be subjected to bottom trawling, MCS would consider it a default red rating unless there is evidence (e.g. environmental impact assessment) indicating the activity does not damage the integrity of the site.

Alternatives

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
Cod, Pacific Cod
Coley, Saithe
Haddock
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish, White
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Spurdog, Spiny Dogfish, Dogfish, Rock Salmon or Flake
Sturgeon (Farmed)
Tilapia

References

EU, 2019. Regulation (EU) 2019/472 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 March 2019 establishing a multiannual plan for stocks fished in the Western Waters and adjacent waters, and for fisheries exploiting those stocks. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1554387217276&uri=CELEX:32019R0472 [Accessed on 12.07.2019].

ICES. 2019. Working Group for the Celtic Seas Ecoregion (WGCSE). ICES Scientific Reports. 1:29. 1078 pp. doi: 10.17895/ices.pub.4982. Available at http://www.ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/Fisheries%20Resources%20Steering%20Group/2019/WGCSE/01_WGCSE_2019.pdf [Accessed on 16.07.2019].

ICES. 2020. Cod (Gadus morhua) in divisions 7.e–k (eastern English Channel and southern Celtic Seas). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, cod.27.7e–k. Available at https://doi.org/10.17895/ices.advice.5892 [Accessed on 19.11.2020].

Seafish, 2019. RASS Profile: Atlantic cod in the Celtic Sea, Demersal otter trawl. Available at https://www.seafish.org/risk-assessment-for-sourcing-seafood/profile/atlantic-cod-in-the-celtic-sea-demersal-otter-trawl [Accessed on 16.07.2019]