Cod, Atlantic Cod

Gadus morhua

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Demersal otter trawl
Capture area — North East Atlantic (FAO 27)
Stock area — Baltic Sea (West)
Stock detail — 3d.22-24
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

The spawning stock biomass has recently improved, although it is still below MSY Btrigger. Fishing pressure has decreased but is still too high, above FMSY. Recruitment of young fish to the fishery has been low since 1999. The 2016 year class will be the most important contribution of incoming fish to the fishery in 2020, and it is now thought to be less than half of previous estimates, resulting in a significant reduction (52%) in advised catch levels. The fishery is managed through Total Allowable Catch (TAC), effort, seasonal fisheries restrictions, and technical measures. Recent TACs have been set higher than advice. In 2019, the TAC was set above FMSY: according to the management plan, TACs can only be set above FMSY if the stock is above MSY Btrigger, which this stock is not. Recreational catches are significant, adding to the fishing pressure on this stock. This stock is caught by trawling and gillnets. Trawling can have benthic impacts, while gillnetting can bycatch numerous vulnerable species.


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: 0.75 info

Stock Area

Baltic Sea (West)

Stock information

Cod is overall the most important commercial species in the Baltic Sea. The abundance and distribution of cod has varied considerably over time due to biological as well as anthropogenic causes. Two populations are present in the area: eastern and western Baltic cod. These cod stocks have different morphometric characters and population genetics. They overlap in the area near Bornholm Island. The eastern cod occurs in the central, eastern and northern part of the Baltic but not in significant numbers north of the Aalands Islands. The western cod inhabits the areas west of Bornholm island including the Danish Straits. The eastern population is the largest (90% eastern : 10% western population), but some fluctuations in the relative proportions of the cod stocks occur due to differences and changes in exploitation level and recruitment.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has been fluctuating around the limit reference point (BLim; 14,500 tonnes) since 2009, but has increased in the last two years and in 2019 is 21,297t, above BLim and close to MSY Btrigger (21,876t). The fishing mortality (F) in 2018 was 0.37: above FMSY (0.26) but below Fpa (0.99). A large decrease in F has occurred since 2013. Recruitment has been low since 1999. The 2016 year class will be the most important contribution of incoming fish to the fishery in 2020, and it is now thought to be less than half of previous estimates, resulting in a significant reduction (52%) in advised catch levels. .

ICES advises that when the EU multiannual plan (MAP) is applied, total catches in 2020 that correspond to the F ranges in the plan are between 5205 tonnes and 11006 tonnes. According to the MAP, catches higher than those corresponding to FMSY (7245 tonnes) can only be taken under conditions specified in the MAP, whilst the entire range is considered precautionary when applying the ICES advice rule. Assuming recreational catches at recent average this implies commercial catches between 3065 tonnes and 5105 tonnes (5867 tonnes and 22 238 tonnes in 2019; 1376 tonnes and 3541 tonnes in 2018).


Criterion score: 0.75 info

The fishery is managed through Total Allowable Catch (TAC), effort, seasonal fisheries restrictions, and technical measures.
Scientific advice on catch levels is given for both total catches (including recreational) and commercial catches. Looking at the advice for commercial catches only (which wasn’t given in 2016), the 2015 TAC was 80% above advice, the 2017 TAC was 6 times the advice, and the 2018 TAC was 60% above the advice. In 2019, the TAC was set within the advised ranges for F according to the Baltic Sea Multi-Annual Plan (MAP), but in the upper range (i.e. above FMSY) at 9,515t. Commercial catch in line with FMSY would have been 5,105t. According to the MAP, TACs can only be set above FMSY if the stock is above MSY BTrigger, which this stock is not.

The cod fisheries in the western Baltic have also been regulated since 2009 by a seasonal closure from 1 April to 30 April (since 2016 there has been no directed cod fishery in February and March) to protect spawning aggregations of cod. Between 2016 and 2018 both a very large and a historically low recruitment were produced with a similar spawning stock size. The span of years implemented for the closure was too short to evaluate its impact. In 2019 no spawning closure was implemented.
To decrease discards, a “Bacoma” codend with a 120 mm mesh was introduced by the International Baltic Sea Fisheries Commission (IBSFC) in 2001 in parallel to an increase in diamond mesh size to 130 mm in traditional codends. As of 1 January 2010 the “Bacoma” 120 mm was re-introduced, along with an extended “Bacoma” window (5.5 m) to further decrease discarding, and the minimum landing size was kept at 38 cm. The increase in minimum landing size from 35 to 38 cm has increased discard rates.

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

Criterion score: 0.5 info

The main portion of cod is taken by active gears such as trawl and Seine nets, but also by passive gears e.g. gillnet and longline. There is potential damage to seabed by trawling. Trawling also associated with discarding of unwanted fish i.e. undersized and/or non-quota and/or over-quota species. Bycatch consists mainly of flatfish, with flounders being the most abundant. The minimum landing size for cod in EU waters and in the Baltic is 35cms. The approximate size at which 50% of females first spawn is however 60 to 70 cm.
Recreational catches of cod in the western Baltic management area are considered to consist exclusively of WB cod. A bag-limit was introduced for the first time in 2017 due to the poor stock status and this has lead (inter alia) to a drop in the recreational catches in 2017 and 2018 (1315 tonnes and 1600 tonnes, respectively). For 2019 the bag limit has been increased, from 5 to 7 fish per day per angler. The impact on the recreational catches in 2019 is unknown.
Landings of fish below the minimum conservation reference size (MCRS, 35 cm) are very low in the management area. Discarding still takes place despite the fact that the landing obligation has been in place since 2015. The estimated amount of discards is 157 tonnes in 2018 (approximately 4.2%), based on observer data.


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


Eero, M., Hinrichsen, H., Hjelm, J., Huwer, B., Hassy, K., Kaster, F. W., Margonski, P., Plikshs, M., Storr-Paulsen, M., and Zimmermann, C. 2019. Designing spawning closures can be complicated: Experience from cod in the Baltic Sea. Ocean and Coastal Management, 169: 129-136.
ICES, 2019. ICES Advice on fishing opportunities, catch, and effort Baltic Sea Ecoregion cod.27.22-24. Published 29 May 2019. (Accessed June 2019).