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 (East)
Stock detail — 3d (subdivisions 24-32)
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: June 2020

Default red rating . This stock is below its lower limit (Blim, meaning its ability to reproduce may be impaired) and there is no recovery plan in place. Advice is for zero catch, but a Total Allowable Catch of 7,500 tonnes was set for 2020. The lack of recovery plan and catches against advice result in this rating receiving a Critical Fail with regard to stock status.


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

There are two cod populations in the Baltic Sea: eastern and western. The Eastern population is far larger, at around 90% of the total Baltic population, but is at very low levels. Western Baltic cod is overfished and subject to overfishing, but is in a better state than Eastern cod and the stock status seems to be improving.

Eastern Baltic cod is severely overfished, with spawning stock biomass (SSB) in 2020 at 68,652 tonnes - the lowest since the year 2000 and below Blim (102,702t). Blim is defined as the SSB in 2012, which is when the last strong year-class was produced in the recent period of low productivity. There is no reference point for MSY BTrigger or FMSY. Fishing mortality has been broadly declining since a peak of 1.04 in 2000, and in 2019 it was 0.117. Recruitment in 2018 appears to have been close to zero. Estimated recruitment for 2019 and 2020 is higher, but is based on a recent average rather than surveys. Size at maturity has substantially declined: in the early 1990s 50% of the population matured at 35-40cm; in the late 2000s it was 20cm.

ICES advises that when the precautionary approach is applied, there should be zero catch in 2021, which is the same as the advice in 2020. However, Russia and the EU set a Total Allowable Catch in 2020 totalling 7,500 tonnes, and therefore this advice is not being followed. The ICES advice applies to all catches from the stock in subdivisions 24–32; in subdivision 24 Eastern Baltic cod is caught as bycatch in the Western Baltic cod fishery but this area was closed to targeted cod fishing in 2019.

The poor status of the Eastern Baltic cod is largely driven by biological changes in the stock during recent decades. Growth, condition (weight at length), and size at maturity have substantially declined. These developments indicate that the stock is distressed and is expected to have reduced reproductive potential. The recruitment of this stock is strongly driven by environmental factors, e.g. whether oxygen and salinity levels are sufficient for eggs to survive, which depends on the inflow of high salinity water from the North Sea. Natural mortality has increased, and is estimated to be considerably higher than the fishing mortality in recent years. The size of the largest fish in the population has declined since 1990. Changes in maturity over time mean the development of the exploitable stock size is not consistently represented by SSB, especially in recent years. The biomass of commercial sized cod (over 35 cm) was 50,205 tonnes in 2019 - the lowest level since records began in 1946. The low growth, poor condition, and high natural mortality of cod are related to changes in the ecosystem, including low oxygen levels, low prey availability (sprat and herring have moved northwards and overlap less with the cod stock) and high parasite levels, related to increased abundance of grey seals. A recent study into feeding level and body length indicates that young cod (post-settlement, pre-spawning) are experiencing severe growth limitation and increased starvation-related mortality, likely owing to a decrease in prey because of increased hypoxic areas.


This stock is below its lower limit (BLim) and there is no recovery plan in place. Advice is for zero catch, but catches continue to be allowed. Therefore, this rating receives a Critical Fail and is a Default red rating by MCS.

Nine countries border the Baltic Sea, and all except Russia are EU member states. The EU Baltic Sea Multi-Annual Plan is the main piece of legislation guiding fisheries management in the Baltic Sea, and there are bilateral agreements with Russia, although Russia does not have a management plan for Eastern Baltic cod. However, Total Allowable Catches are calculated to include EU and Russian autonomous quotas. The scientific recommendation is for zero catch in 2020 and 2021. The stock is not expected to recover above Blim in medium term, even with no fishing. Furthermore, fishing at any level will target the remaining few commercial sized (over 35cm) cod, and further deteriorate the stock structure and reduce its reproductive potential. However, a TAC of 7,500 tonnes was set for 2020.

In July 2019, the European Commission introduced emergency measure to ban commercial fishing for Eastern Baltic cod in most of the Baltic Sea until 31 December 2019. It covered all fishing vessels and applied in areas where the largest part of the stock is present (subdivisions 24-26), although scientific advice was to ban fishing for the entire area of direct catch and bycatch of eastern Baltic cod (subdivisions 24-32). Any cod caught had to be discarded except for pelagic trawl fisheries and small-scale coastal fisheries using passive gears, which were allowed bycatch of cod of up to 10% of total catches. There was a strong incentive to misreport landings (i.e. allocate them to a different area), and so this measure is likely to have increased unreported and unregulated landings. The closure resulted in a 47% decrease in landings of the stock. 86% of the landings during the closure were taken by Russia, which was not affected by the EU emergency legislation.

Eastern Baltic cod is caught in mixed fisheries with western Baltic cod in Subdivision (SD) 24. If the commercial catch of western Baltic cod in 2021 is in line with the advised catch of 4635 tonnes, and the ratios of stock mixing remain the same as in previous years, it is expected that 1532 tonnes of eastern Baltic cod will be caught in SD 24 in 2021.

Since 2015, all cod must be landed (no discarding at sea is permitted). There is a Minimum Conservation Reference Size of 35cm: cod below this size must be landed whole, but can’t be used for human consumption. To decrease below-MCRS catches, a “Bacoma” codend with a 120 mm mesh was introduced by the International Baltic Sea Fisheries Commission (IBSFC) in 2010, and diamond mesh size must be 130 mm in traditional codends. An extended “Bacoma” window (5.5 m) is also required to further decrease undersize catches. However, an estimated 1,337t of eastern Baltic cod were discarded in 2019 - 14% of the total catch by weight.

Highgrading has been prohibited since 1 January 2010 in all Baltic Sea fisheries, and data from observer schemes indicate that it is a minor problem. Historically, unreported landings have been a problem in this fishery, but this is also now considered a minor problem.

The UK is due to leave the EU on 31st December 2020, and new UK Fisheries legislation is being developed during 2020. MCS will update ratings with new management information when new legislation comes into force.

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 main ecosystem impacts of this fishery are related to abrasion of the seabed from trawling.

Commercial catches of eastern Baltic cod are mainly taken by active gears such as trawlers.

Around 15% of the Baltic Sea is covered by Marine Protected Areas, which were primarily set up to protect marine and coastal habitats, and seabirds. Disturbance of seabed habitats due to physical abrasion from mobile bottom-contacting fishing gears, such as demersal trawls, occurs mostly in the southern Baltic Sea and may reduce benthic diversity and biomass depending on the substrate type. Frequent disturbance by bottom trawls reduces benthic diversity and biomass and changes the composition of benthic species. An assessment of the impacts of trawling in the Baltic Sea has not yet been carried out.

Baltic Sea cod fisheries also have a bycatch of flounder, but flounder stocks are currently increasing and so this is not of concern.

Trawling is not listed as having any significant impacts on Protected, Threatened or Endangered species.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the open central Baltic went through an ecosystem regime-shift due to environmental and anthropogenic changes, where cod biomass collapsed and that of sprat increased steeply. Simultaneously, changes were observed in the zooplankton composition. Many species and habitats of the Baltic Sea are not in good condition. This affects food web functionality, reduces resilience and resistance against further environmental changes, and diminishes prospects for socioeconomic benefits, including fishing opportunities. Key issues include nutrient overload, high contaminant levels, hypoxia or anoxia in deep-water areas, climate change driving water temperature and salinity changes, non-indigenous species, and abrasion and substrate loss.


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. 2016. Regulation (EU) 2016/1139 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 July 2016 establishing a multiannual plan for the stocks of cod, herring and sprat in the Baltic Sea and the fisheries exploiting those stocks, amending Council Regulation (EC) No 2187/2005 and repealing Council Regulation (EC) No 1098/2007. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

ICES. 2020. Cod (Gadus morhua) in subdivisions 24–32, eastern Baltic stock (eastern Baltic Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, cod.27.24-32. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

ICES. 2020. EU standing request on catch scenarios for zero TAC stocks 2020; the eastern Baltic cod (Gadus morhua) stock in subdivisions 24–32. In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2020. ICES Advice 2020, sr.2020.05a. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

ICES. 2020. Baltic Fisheries Assessment Working Group (WGBFAS). ICES Scientific Reports. 2:45. 632 pp. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

ICES. 2019. Baltic Sea Ecoregion – Fisheries Overview. Version 2: 29 November 2019. In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019. ICES Advice 2019, section 4.2. 28 pp. Available at [Accessed on 30.06.2020].

ICES. 2018. Baltic Sea Ecoregion – Ecosystem overview. Version 2: 21 January 2019. Available at 10.17895/ [Accessed on 30.06.2020]/