Cod, Atlantic Cod
Capture method — Gill or fixed net
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — North Sea, eastern English Channel, Skagerrak
Stock detail — 4, 7d, 3a.20
Updated: July 2019.
Default red rating: Cod in the North Sea, eastern English Channel and Skagerrak is below safe biological levels and is being subjected to overfishing. A long term management plan from 2008-2016 went some way to recovering the stock, but it was unable to sufficiently reduce fishing pressure and was then altered, with potentially important measures such as fishing effort limitations and incentives for highly selective gear being removed. Because of the low stock level and lack of a recovery plan, this rating has received a Critical Fail.
Atlantic cod is listed by OSPAR as a threatened and declining species and by IUCN as vulnerable in Greater North Sea and Celtic Sea.
Gill netting here can encounter bycatch of harbour porpoise. Catch rates are not considered to be a threat to the population in the North Sea, but localised depletion may be an issue in some areas.
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.
Criterion score: Default red rating info
North Sea, eastern English Channel, Skagerrak
The stock is below safe levels and experiencing overfishing, and recruitment of young fish into the stock is poor.
Spawning-stock biomass (SSB) decreased from 118,237t in 2015 to 77,818t in 2018. In 2019 it is predicted to be 57,451t - far below the lower limit for the stock (BLim = 107,000t) and some way from sustainable levels (MSY BTrigger = 150,000t), which the stock has not reached since before 1985. Fishing mortality (F) has increased since 2016, and was 0.63 in 2018 - above Flim (0.54) and more than double FMSY (0.31). Fishing pressure has not been below 0.52 since before 1985, and therefore has never been at what is currently considered to be a sustainable level (i.e. FMSY). Recruitment has been poor since 1998, possibly due to environmental conditions.
ICES advises that when the MSY approach is applied, catches in 2020 should be no more than 10,457t, which is predicted to recover the stock to BLim by 2021. This is a 63% decrease from the previous year, owing to: a downward revision of SSB in recent years with the addition of one extra year of data, the recruitment estimate for 2019 being substantially below the value assumed last year, and the need for a large reduction in F to recover the stock to BLim by 2021. There is some uncertainty in the assessment, and the possibility that the current forecast is too optimistic.
The fishery was recommended to be closed from 2001 - 2007 and again in 2009, but average TACs of around 30,000t in the North Sea and 5,000t in the Skagerrak were set and catches matched those limits. From 2016-2018 TACs were below advised limits, and catches were close to or below TACs.
From 2006-2016 the North Sea cod stock was recovering, but the current management plan has failed to maintain the positive trajectory and the stock is once again in a poor state and experiencing overfishing. There is currently no recovery plan in place.
This fishery was recommended to be closed from 2001 - 2007 and again in 2009, but TACs averaged around 30,000t in the North Sea and 5,000t in the Skagerrak and catches matched those limits. Subsequently, efforts were made to make management more precautionary. The 2008 recovery plan for cod triggered considerable improvements in selectivity and cod avoidance but was not successful in reducing fishing effort to the target level (0.4). It included incentives that were linked to a fishing effort regime, with greater effort allowed for the most selective gears. The fishing effort regime was discontinued for the Kattegat, Skagerrak, Irish Sea and North Sea in 2017 when the landings obligation came into force. Between 2008 and 2016, real time closures (RTCs) were implemented under the Scottish Conservation Credits Scheme (CCS), which aimed to reduce cod catches through: (i) avoiding areas with high cod abundance and (ii) the use of more species-selective gears. Efforts were also made to reduce discards generally. During the lifetime of the scheme, between 100 and 200 RTCs were implemented each year and around 450 vessels were involved in the CCS scheme. The scheme undoubtedly had an effect on the mortality of cod as well as other associated species, such as whiting and haddock. It is uncertain if and to what extent the discontinuation of these measures has had an impact on the recent decline of the cod stock. The expansion of CCTV and Fully Documented Fishery (FDF) programmes in 2010-2016 in Scotland, Denmark, Germany, England and the Netherlands were also thought to have contributed to the reduction of cod mortality. In the Scottish North Sea FDF trials, vessels were exempt from some effort restrictions and allocated additional cod quota: in return, they had to carry monitoring cameras and land all cod caught. The cod-specific FDF scheme terminated at the end of 2016 owing to the suspension of most aspects of the EU Cod Recovery plan, which removed the opportunity for countries to provide additional quota for participants. A new FDF is in place in Scotland, intended to monitor discarding of saithe and monkfish, but only 3 demersal vessels participated in 2017 and none 2018.
Cod is now covered by the EU’s North Sea Multi Annual management Plan (MAP), and although the MAP has not been adopted by Norway, joint TACs are agreed through the EU-Norway Agreement. One of the aims of the MAP is to maintain fishing pressure at a level which has a less than 5% chance of causing the stock to drop below BLim, but the stock is currently well below this limit. Measures include the continuation of cod fishing effort limitations, but only in the Eastern Channel (division 7d). Fishing capacity (in kW) here is limited to maximum levels in 2006 or 2007 for bottom trawlers and seiners using mesh size 16-32mm or 70mm or more; beam trawlers using mesh size 80mm or more; gill or entangling nets; trammel nets or longliners. Recent TACs have been set below advised limits, and catches have been close to or below TACs.
Discarding in 2018 contributed less than a quarter of the total catch by weight, a substantial improvement on recent years (when the average was almost half of the total). There have been considerable efforts to reduce discards by some countries, and the impact of these reductions are starting to be felt (e.g. reduced discarding leading to improved survival of incoming year classes).
The Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG) North Sea cod fishery (trawls) was certified as a responsibly managed fishery against the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard in July 2017.
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).
Some mitigation measures are in place, but gillnetting can catch species such as harbour porpoise.
In 2018, 75% of the catch was from demersal trawls and seines (mesh size greater than 100mm); 10.7% from gillnets; 6.7% from demersal trawls (70-99 mm); and 2.5% from beam trawls. Cod are caught as part of mixed demersal fisheries, which include haddock, whiting, Nephrops, plaice, and sole.
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.
Under the North Sea MAP, bycatch species should be managed under the precautionary approach if scientific information is not available, and otherwise managed according to the key CFP objectives. If stocks fall below trigger levels, measures can be brought in such as limits on characteristics or use of gear (e.g. mesh size, depth); time/area closures; and minimum conservation reference sizes.
Mitigation measures include: minimum 120mm mesh size in the northern North Sea and seasonal closures to protect spawning stocks (spawning cod, in particular). For cod, haddock, saithe and whiting in the North Sea and Skagerrak, if more than 10% of the catch by weight is juveniles (smaller than 35cm, 30cm, 35cm, or 27cm respectively), the area in which they were caught is closed for 3 weeks. While the minimum conservation reference size (MCRS) for cod in EU waters is 35cm and in Skagerrak/Kattegat is 30cm, the approximate size at which 50% of females first spawn is 60 to 70cm. During the last five years, an average of 66% of the international landings (by number) were juvenile cod (aged 1-3). This increases to 83% when considering landings and discards combined. In 2017, age 1 cod comprised 39% of the total catch by number, age 2, 19% and age 3, 17%.
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
Bass, seabass (Farmed)
Bream, Gilthead (Farmed)
Cod, Atlantic Cod
Cod, Pacific Cod
Pollock, Alaska, Walleye
ReferencesEU, 2011. Regulation (EU) No 783/2011 of 5 August 2011 amending Regulation (EU) No 724/2010 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of real-time closures of certain fisheries in the North Sea and Skagerrak. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex:32011R0783 [Accessed on 02.07.2019].
EU, 2018. Regulation 2018/973 establishing a multiannual plan for demersal stocks in the North Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks. Available at https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:32018R0973&from=EN [Accessed on 02.07.2019].
EU, 2019. Bilateral Agreements: Norway Northern Agreement. Available at https://ec.europa.eu/fisheries/cfp/international/agreements/norway [Accessed on 02.07.2019].
ICES, 2018. Report of the Working Group on the Assessment of Demersal Stocks in the North Sea and Skagerrak (WGNSSK), 24 April - 3 May 2018, Oostende, Belgium. ICES CM 2018/ACOM: 22pp. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Expert%20Group%20Report/acom/2018/WGNSSK/01-WGNSSK%20Report%202018.pdf [Accessed on 02.07.2019].
ICES. 2019. Cod (Gadus morhua) in Subarea 4 Division 7.d and Subdivision 20 (North Sea eastern English Channel Skagerrak). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee 2019. ICES Advice 2019, cod.27.47d20. doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4859. Available at http://ices.dk/sites/pub/Publication%20Reports/Advice/2019/2019/cod.27.47d20.pdf [Accessed on 02.07.2019].
Seafish, 2019. RASS Profile: Atlantic Cod, North Sea, Demersal gill net. Available at https://www.seafish.org/risk-assessment-for-sourcing-seafood/profile/atlantic-cod-north-sea-demersal-gill-net [Accessed on 02.07.2019]
WWF, 2019. Remote Electronic Monitoring in UK Fisheries Management 2017. Available at https://www.wwf.org.uk/sites/default/files/2017-10/Remote%20Electronic%20Monitoring%20in%20UK%20Fisheries%20Management_WWF.pdf [Accessed on 02.07.2019].