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 — Celtic Seas (southern), Western English Channel
Stock detail — 7e-k
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

Default red rating: The stock size in this area has been below the lower limit (Blim, the level at which its ability to reproduce may be impaired) since 2004, except from 2011-2013. Fishing pressure remains high and is well above sustainable levels, and management measures are not sufficient to address this. Management includes some area closures to protect spawning areas and minimum mesh sizes, but no recovery plan. The recent introduction of square mesh panels is not expected to improve selectivity or reduce Celtic cod catches. ICES advises that there should be zero catch in 2019 and 2020. Cod is not a target species, but is caught as bycatch in haddock- and whiting-dedicated fisheries. Discards from 2014-2018 averaged 10%, mostly composed of 1 and 2 year old fish. Atlantic cod is listed by OSPAR as a threatened and declining species in this area. This rating receives a Critical Fail owing to the stock size being below Blim and the lack of precautionary recovery plan.

Gillnets can be very size selective for the target fish but can be unselective at the species level for non-target fish, mammals, birds. Bycatch rates of harbour porpoise in the Celtic Seas ecoregion are highly variable and data is limited, but an ICES report from September 2018 indicates that modelled total catch rates are above conservation (ASCOBANS) reference points.


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

Spawning stock biomass (SSB) has been below Blim (7,300 tonnes) since 2004, except from 2011 to 2013. In 2018 it was 1,783t, and is projected to be 1,290 in 2019. Fishing mortality (F) has been above FMSY (0.35) for the entire time-series and has fluctuated around Flim (0.8) in recent years. In 2018 it was 0.83. Recruitment has been highly variable over time, but has been low recently, with the exception of 2014, which was above average.

ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, there should be zero catch in 2020. This is the same advice as for 2019 because SSB is expected to remain below Blim even with zero catch. The stock needs to increase by over 300% to reach BLim; if current fishing mortality is maintained, it would increase by just 38%.

There is a very strong tendency for the assessment to overestimate SSB and to underestimate F. This suggests that the impact of catches on the stock is very uncertain, but it is clear that the stock is well below Blim.


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 difficult to control because of these mixed-fisheries interactions. In 2019 and 2020, zero catches were recommended. In 2019, this stock was given a bycatch quota (2019 Total Allowable Catch is 1,610 tonnes), on the understanding that a bycatch reduction plan would be introduced as soon as possible. While the plans should have been finalised in April 2019, they are not yet (as of July 2019) in place.

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 14.3% 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), as a portion of the catch taken under the 7.a TAC are considered part of the 7.e-k stock.

Discards from 2014-2018 averaged 10%, mostly composed of 1 and 2 year old fish. Most of the discarding has been by otter trawlers and beam trawlers, 60% and 22% respectively.

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 landing size (MLS) of 35 cm. The recent technical measures introduced in the Celtic Sea (square mesh panels) are not expected to significantly reduce catches of Celtic Sea cod or improved the selection pattern. This is because of the fast growth rate of Celtic Sea cod (age 2 fish range between 40 and 70 cm).

In the European Union (EU), EU fishing vessels can fish up to 12 nautical miles of any Member State coast, and closer by agreement. There is overarching fisheries legislation for all Member States, but implementation varies between fisheries, Member States and sea basins.
The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) is the primary overarching policy. Its key environmental objectives are to restore and maintain harvested species at healthy levels (above BMSY), and apply the precautionary and ecosystem-based approaches to fisheries management. To achieve the MSY objective, the MSY exploitation rate is supposed to be achieved by 2020, but this seems unlikely to happen.
The CFP also introduced a Landing Obligation (LO) which bans the discarding at sea of species which are subject to catch limits. Some exemptions apply to species with high post-capture survival, and where avoiding unwanted catches is very difficult. These exemptions are outlined in regional discard plans. Despite quota Uplift being granted to fleets under the LO, available evidence suggests there has been widespread non-compliance with the policy, and illegal and unreported discarding is likely occurring.
Multi-Annual Plans (MAPs) are a tool for implementing the CFP regionally, with one in place or being developed for each sea basin. They specify fishing mortality targets and ranges for the main targeted species, as well as lower biomass reference points. If populations drop below these points it should trigger a management response. The MAPs also empower Member States to jointly apply measures such as closures, gear or capacity limits, and bycatch limits. There is concern however that the MAPs do not provide adequate safeguards to maintain all stocks at healthy levels.
The EU Technical Measures regulation addresses how, where and when fishing can take place in order to limit unwanted catches and ecosystem impacts. There are common measures that apply to all EU sea basins, and regional measures that vary between sea basins. Measures include Minimum Conservation Reference Sizes (MCRS, previously Minimum Landing Sizes, MLS), gear specifications, mesh sizes, closed areas, and bycatch limits.
The Control Regulation, which is being revised in 2019, addresses application of and compliance with the above, e.g. keeping catches within limits, recording and sharing data, and satellite tracking of vessels over 12 metres (VMS).

Capture Information

The 2018 catch was split between gears as follows: Otter trawl: 76%; Beam trawl: 10%; Gillnet: 6%; Seine: 7%. In recent years, France has take 60% of the landings on average, Ireland 27% and the UK 10%, although in 2018 Ireland took 51% and France took 36%.

Cod in 7e-k is caught as part of a mixed fishery with haddock and whiting, and is a bycatch species of major concern in this fishery.

Gillnets and fixed nets can be very size selective, but can bycatch species such as sharks, cetaceans and other marine mammals. Reports indicate that there is concern regarding the bycatch of cetaceans, particularly harbour porpoise, by gillnets. One of the areas of most concern is off the South West of England, where areas of higher gillnet fishing effort coincide with areas of larger harbour porpoise populations. However, these reports are based on highly uncertain data which cannot indicate the likelihood of bycatch either causing populations to decline or preventing populations from recovering. Progress on this issue is being made in some areas, with Defra leading work to improve monitoring and mitigation of cetacean bycatch (“Hauling Up Solutions”). A pilot project trialling self-reporting of bycatch is taking place in Cornwall, potentially backed up by electronic monitoring and VMS in time, and trialling the use of pingers and other mitigation technologies, which are known to deter harbour porpoise from entanglement in nets. MCS is pleased to see this progress, but notes that if catch rates of harbour porpoise do not show a decrease then scoring of this capture method may be affected. Because of gillnets’ durability (they are made of nylon), if lost, they can continue to fish for several weeks before becoming tangled and bundled up, a phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’. However, static nets, as with all gear, represent an investment by fishermen, and therefore there are incentives to avoid losing or damaging gear.


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
Hake, European
Monkfish, Anglerfish, White
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
Sturgeon (Farmed)


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 [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/ Available at [Accessed on 16.07.2019].

ICES, 2019. Cod (Gadus morhua) in divisions 7.e-k (western English Channel and southern Celtic Seas) In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, cod.27.7e-k, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4782. Available at [Accessed on 16.07.2019].

Seafish, 2019. RASS Profile: Atlantic cod in the Celtic Sea, Demersal otter trawl. Available at [Accessed on 16.07.2019]