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 — Northeast Arctic (Barents and Norwegian Sea)
Stock detail — 1, 2
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating two info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2020

The cod stock in the northeast Arctic is in a healthy state, and fishing pressure is below Maximum Sustainable Yield. There is a management plan and Harvest Control Rule for this stock, which ICES considers to be precautionary, but catches have been on average 10% above scientific advice since 2016. The main ecosystem impact of this fishery is the bycatch of coastal cod and golden redfish (Sebastes norvegicus): both stocks are in a poor state and golden redfish is listed as endangered.


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

The stock is in a very healthy state, and fishing pressure is consistent with sustainable levels.

The spawning-stock biomass (SSB) has been above MSY Btrigger (460,000 tonnes) since 2002. It peaked at over 2,600,000t in 2013 and has been declining since, although at 1,367,961t in 2018 it remains in a very healthy state. Fishing mortality (F) was reduced from a peak of 0.96 in 1999 to a low of 0.24 in 2012. In 2019 it increased to 0.34, but remains below FMSY (0.4). Recruitment has been at a fairly consistent level since the early 1990s, but the only strong year classes in that time have been in 2006 and 2007.

ICES advises that when the Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission management plan is applied, catches in 2021 should be no more than 885,600 tonnes - a 28% increase on the previous year’s advice because the predicted biomass of fish aged 5-10 (which make up the majority of the catches) is higher in this assessment. This equates to a 20% increase in the TAC. According to the harvest control rule (HCR), the maximum increase in TAC is limited by 20%, giving the catch of 885,600 tonnes, which corresponds to an F of 0.47 in 2021.

There is some uncertainty in this assessment, which will be investigated further the next time the stock is benchmarked.


Criterion score: 0.25 info

The Joint Russian-Norwegian Fisheries Commission (JRNFC) amended their previous management plan in October 2016. The new plan uses a Harvest Control Rule, which uses the predicted stock size for the next fishing year and FMSY to predict catches across the next three years. The average of these catches is used to calculate TACs to reach a target level of exploitation, which varies depending on the stock size. TACs must not change by more than 20% from one year to the next. ICES evaluated this HCR in 2016 and concluded that it is precautionary. However, since 2016 TACs have been set above scientific advice (by 10% on average), and while catches have generally been below TACs, they have been above the advice too (by 4%, on average). Up to 10% of a country’s quota can be transferred to the next year or borrowed from the previous year, which could lead to some deviation between agreed TAC and reported catch.

Between 2002 and 2008 there were high levels of unreported catches, but since 2009 there has been close alignment between total catches and officially reported landings. Increased surveillance and monitoring at sea and in the air by both Russian and Norwegian authorities, including greater participation by regulation-compliant fishing vessels, and greater cooperation from receiving port authorities, has more or less eradicated Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing in the Barents Sea. Discarding is considered to be negligible in recent years.

This fishery comprises an international trawler fleet and coastal vessels using traditional fishing gears. Quotas were introduced in 1978 for the trawler fleets and in 1989 for the coastal fleets. In addition to the Harvest Control Rule described above, the fishery is regulated by a minimum catch size, a minimum mesh size in trawls and Danish seines, a maximum bycatch of undersized fish, closure of areas having high densities of juveniles and by seasonal and area restrictions.

Capture Information

Criterion score: 0.75 info

There are numerous measures to protect habitats and reduce bycatch in this fishery. Ultimately though, unsustainable bycatch of golden redfish remains an issue.

Roughly 70% of the catch is by demersal trawls. Most catches are by Russia and Norway, but Faroe Islands, Spain, Greenland and the UK, among others, also fish this stock.

Fisheries, especially trawlers, targeting Northeast Arctic (NEA) cod and haddock take a bycatch of golden redfish (Sebastes norvegicus), which is on the Norwegian Redlist as a threatened (EN) species, indicating that it’s at risk of extinction. A bycatch of up to 10% by weight of redfish is permitted for vessels over 21m, and 30% for smaller vessels. An estimated sustainable catch would be 1,000t - 1,500t: total 2019 catch of golden redfish was 8,283t. Measures to minimise bycatch of this species are essential, although other fisheries take a higher bycatch then NEA cod (particularly beaked redfish). Bycatch of coastal cod should also be kept as low as possible in order to promote rebuilding of that stock (see MCS’s Atlantic Cod: Norwegian Coast rating for details).

The fishery is regulated by a minimum catch size, a minimum mesh size in trawls (130mm) and Danish seines and a maximum bycatch of undersized fish. Since January 1997, sorting grids have been mandatory for the trawl fisheries in most of the Barents Sea and Svalbard area. There are real-time closures of areas with high densities of juveniles, where the proportion by number of undersized cod, haddock, and saithe combined has been observed by inspectors to exceed 15%. The area is reopened after trial fishing shows the proportion to have reduced to below 15%. There are also seasonal and area restrictions.

While trawling does have seabed impacts, fishers tend to avoid areas containing vulnerable species such as sponge because these affect the quality of the catch. There are designated MPAs in Norwegian and Russian waters, within which all fishing is prohibited. It is an offence for any fishing vessel to fish on or in close proximity to known areas of coral reef or coral garden. Norwegian vessels report the presence of cold-water corals or sponges in a catch and then move 2-5 miles away to continue fishing - this is monitored through Vessel Monitoring Systems.

In recent years, changes in the ice cover due to ocean warming means that potentially more areas of seabed would be available for trawling which had not been trawled in previous years.


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)


ICES. 2020. Cod (Gadus morhua) in subareas 1 and 2 (Northeast Arctic). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, cod.27.1-2. [Accessed on 01.07.2020].

ICES. 2020. Arctic Fisheries Working Group (AFWG). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:52. 577 pp. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

MSC, 2020. Marine Stewardship Council: Norway North East Arctic cod. Available at [Accessed on 01.07.2020].

Seafish, 2019. RASS Profile: Atlantic cod in the North-East Arctic (ICES subareas 1 and 2), Demersal otter trawl. Available at [Accessed on 01.07.2020]