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.24-32
Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating five info

Sustainability overview

Updated: July 2019.

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 while emergency measures introduced on 23rd July 2019 ban direct fishing in the areas where the majority of the stock is found, bycatch and directed catches in other areas will continue to take place. 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

Stock Area

Baltic Sea (East)

Stock information

The spawning stock biomass (SSB) has been declining since 2015 and is estimated to have been below Blim (96,550t) since 2018: in 2018 SSB was 83,754t and in 2019 it is 66,412t. Fishing mortality (F) has declined since 2012; the value estimated for 2018 is 0.21 - the lowest recorded. Reference points have not been defined for F. Recruitment has been declining since 2012, and the recruitment in 2017 is estimated to be the lowest in the time series. Preliminary indications from larval surveys are that the 2018 year class may be among the weakest on record. The recruitment of this stock is strongly driven by environmental factors, e.g. where oxygen and salinity levels are sufficiently high for eggs to survive, which depends on the inflow of high salinity water from the North Sea.

ICES advices that when the precautionary approach is applied, there should be zero catch in 2020, as SSB is not expected to increase to BLim in the short (by 2021) or medium (2024) term under any fishing scenario, even 0 catch. A slight increase in SSB from 2020 to 2021 is forecast in all catch scenarios, but this may be optimistic. This advice applies to all catches from the stock in subdivisions 24-32: cod is both targeted and taken as a by-catch in fisheries in these areas.

The poor status of the Eastern Baltic cod is largely driven by biological changes in the stock during the last decades. Growth, condition (weight at length), and size at maturation have substantially declined. These developments indicate that the stock is distressed and is expected to have reduced reproductive potential. 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 shown a decline 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. This implies that the SSB now includes small cod that were not part of SSB in earlier years. The biomass of commercial sized cod (>= 35 cm) is presently at the lowest level observed since the 1950s. 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.

The eastern Baltic cod stock is mainly distributed and caught in the eastern Baltic cod management area (subdivisions 25-32), but it is also distributed and caught mixed with western Baltic cod in SD 24; this is part of the western Baltic management area (22-24). The assessment and this advice is for the eastern Baltic cod stock in the entire area of distribution (24 and 25-32). Removals of cod in recreational fisheries in the Baltic are substantial.


Emergency measures: On 23rd July 2019, the European Commission banned commercial fishing for cod in most of the Baltic Sea until 31 December 2019. It covers all fishing vessels and applies 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 must be discarded. Pelagic trawl fisheries and small-scale coastal fisheries using passive gears are allowed bycatch of cod of up to 10% of total catches. The number of vessels in these two fisheries must not increase above the levels they have been at for the past 18 months.

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

This stock is shared between the EU and Russia. The EU Baltic Sea Multiannual Plan (MAP) is in place for stocks in the Baltic Sea, including cod, but Russia does not have a management plan for this stock. However, Total Allowable Catches are calculated to include EU and Russian autonomous quotas.

In addition to TACs, the fishery is managed through effort limitations, seasonal fisheries restrictions, and technical measures. The following closures are in place:
- Eastern Baltic: seasonal closure from 1 July to 31 August.
- Central part of the main spawning area in the Bornholm Deep closed since the mid-1990s for all fisheries.
- Specific areas of the Bornholm Deep, the Gotland Basin, and the Gdansk Deep: closed year-round since 2005, aimed at reducing fishing mortality.
- Since 2006, area closures have been implemented from 1 May to 31 October to protect spawning aggregations.

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.

Discarding still takes place, despite the fact that the landing obligation has been in place for this area since 2015. Landings of fish below the minimum conservation reference size (MCRS; 35 cm) are very low (108 t reported in 2018), compared to the discards (3103 tonnes in 2018) in the management areas of 25-32. The estimated discard amount in 2018 (approximately 16% of the total catch) was based on observer data, but this is considered to be an underestimate. 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 with an increase in diamond mesh size to 130 mm in traditional codends. The available information from the fisheries and observers suggests that modifications to the selectivity properties of the gear takes place, leading to a higher proportion of smaller fish being caught.

Danish and Swedish fisheries in the Eastern Baltic were certified to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) standard as environmentally responsible fisheries in April and June 2011 respectively but are currently suspended.

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 portion of cod is taken by active gears (83% in 2018) such as trawl and Seine nets, but also by passive gears e.g. gillnet and longline. Trawling is associated with discarding of unwanted fish i.e. undersized and/or non-quota and/or over-quota species. The minimum conservation reference 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. The estimated discard amount in 2018 (approximately 16% of the total catch) was based on observer data, but this is considered to be an underestimate.


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


EC, 2019. European Commission Press release: Commission approves emergency measures to protect eastern Baltic cod. Available at [Accessed on 24.07.2019].

ICES, 2019. Cod (Gadus morhua) in subdivisions 24-32, eastern Baltic stock (eastern Baltic Sea). In Report of the ICES Advisory Committee, 2019, cod.27.24-32, doi: 10.17895/ices.advice.4747. Available at [Accessed on 01.06.2019].