Cod, Atlantic Cod

Gadus morhua

Method of production — Caught at sea
Capture method — Gillnet; handline; longline; bottom trawl
Capture area — North West Atlantic (FAO 21)
Stock area — Canadian EEZ & NAFO Area
Stock detail

NAFO Sub areas 2J3KL


FIP Stage 5. More info available here

Picture of Cod, Atlantic Cod

Sustainability rating four to five info

Sustainability overview

Catches of Northern cod increased during the 1960s to a peak of over 800,000 t in 1968, declined steadily to a low of 140,000 t in 1978, increased to about 240,000 t through much of the 1980s, and then declined rapidly in the early 1990s in advance of a moratorium on directed fishing in 1992. In recent years, catches have been at comparatively low levels (between 3 and 15,000t) with most coming from directed inshore fixed gear vessels in the ‘stewardship fishery’, as well commercial bycatch from other fisheries and a significant recreational fishery. The latest stock assessment for Atlantic cod in this region was undertaken in 2018 and indicated that the biomass of the stock had been improving since a moratorium was implemented in 1992. Despite the improvement, the biomass was only assessed at being 37% of the lower biomass limit in 2018, and was not expected to increase above the biomass limit in 2019.

A credible Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) has been in place since 2015 and is making good progress in developing a harvest control rule, amongst other things, to ensure the stock is recovered and maintained at sustainable levels. The FIP has a goal of achieving a standard equivalent to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification by Dec 2021. The current low stock status means that the fishery for all gear types would normally be red rated by MCS and recommended to avoid, but due to the credible FIP being in place, MCS does not recommend avoiding seafood from this fishery. More FIP info available here


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: 1 info

Stock Area

Canadian EEZ & NAFO Area

Stock information

The last full stock assessment was undertaken in March 2018 and indicated that spawning stock biomass (SSB) remains in the critical zone in 2018, at 37% of the biomass limit reference point (Blim or LRP) and is therefore in a substantially overfished state. The biomass is down from the estimated level in 2017 (of 52% of Blim). Despite this, it is still a substantial improvement on 2005 levels where SSB was estimated to be just 3% of Blim. Recent average recruitment is 19% of the pre-collapse period of the 1980s. In the previous full assessment in 2016, a series of projections under various assumptions about fishery removals in 2016 and 2017 estimated median SSB in 2018 would range from 60 to 66% of Blim. The difference is believed to be primarily due to an increase in natural mortality. Key forage species such as capelin and shrimp are important prey items for cod and capelin is anticipated to remain at low levels to at least 2019. This is expected to negatively impact cod productivity. Even under a zero catch scenario, there is less than a 1% chance of reaching Blim in 2019. The estimated fishing mortality rate (on spawning stock) from all sources has increased from 0.014 in 2015 to 0.021 in 2016 and 0.025 in 2017. Estimated catch in 2017 was 15, 054 t where approximately a third is taken in recreational fisheries.


The majority of the cod fishery in this NAFO area (2J3KL) occurs within Canada’s EEZ, although some catches do occur beyond this area and so management is coordinated between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organisation (NAFO) for catches beyond 200nm.

The DFO applies a Sustainable Fisheries Framework to help it achieve fisheries that are conducted in a manner which support conservation and sustainable use. The framework requires that a harvest strategy be incorporated into respective fisheries management plans to keep the removal rate moderate when the stocks status is healthy, to promote rebuilding when stocks status is low, and to ensure a low risk of serious or irreversible harm to the stocks. It also requires a rebuilding plan when a stocks reaches low levels. As this stock is at a low level, as rebuilding plan is needed. To be consistent with the DFO decision-making framework the incorporating the precautionary approach, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat recommends removals from all sources must be kept at the lowest possible level until the stock increases above Blim.

A rebuilding plan and harvest control rule are being developed for the 2J3KL stock which is a key work area for the Fishery Improvement Project (FIP) for the fishery (info here. The FIP commenced in Feb 2015 and is due for completion in Dec 2021 with the aim of addressing environmental issues so as to be compliant with the MSC standard by 2021. A lower biomass reference point for the stock has been developed yet there is no upper biomass reference point and no reference points (like maximum sustainable yield) for exploitation rates. Stock assessments had been undertaken every two years with an update to these annually, but from 2018, a full assessment is to be undertaken each year.

Annual catches have been increasing in recent years, yet measures for 2018 are expected to reduce catches by 25% relative to 2017 to 9,500t. Whilst there are restrictions to the opening and closing of the season and weekly landing restrictions, there is no Total Allowable Catch (TAC) which makes it harder to control total fishing mortality. There is also unaccounted mortality from bycatch in other commercial fisheries and from significant recreational fisheries. A bag limit of five ground fish (including cod) per person per day is in place, and 15 per boat where three or more people are on board.

Capture Information

This rating is specific to the fleets covered under the 2J3KL cod FIP which includes: gillnet, handline, longline and to a lesser extent, bottom trawl. Only fixed gear vessels are authorised to target cod in this region, yet a small amount of catch is reported as bycatch from other fisheries and from trawl surveys.

Some species at risk including wolffish and leatherback turtles are encountered in these fisheries as bycatch. Licence holders are required to return any catches of these species to the place from which they were taken, and where it is alive, in a manner that causes the least harm. Several species of endangered marine mammals can be found in waters that overlap with the fishery. In 2017 there was a shift in the distribution of the North Atlantic right whale population, with an increased presence in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. North Atlantic right whale is an endangered species with less than 500 remaining in the population. In January 2018, DFO Canada announced a number of new management measures for southern Gulf of St. Lawrence Snow crab fishery to protect North Atlantic right whales from gear entanglements. In an effort to minimize the risks of interactions with the species, a number of these measures will also be implemented in all fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador for 2018, and others to begin in 2019.

An important part of the FIP work plan for this fishery is to further evaluate impacts on other species and habitats and to address any outstanding areas of concern. Good progress is being made. More info available here.


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


DFO, 2018. 2J3KL Stewardship cod fishery - conservation harvesting plan (CHP) 2018. Webpage. Date modified 2018-07-11. Available at [Accessed Oct 2018].

DFO, 2018. Stock assessment of northern cod (NAFO divisions 2J3KL) in 2018. Rep. 2018/038.

DFO, 2014. Groundfish species - Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) divisions 2+3KL - effective: 2013. Webpage. Date modified 2014-04-15. Available at [Accessed Oct 2018].

Fish Choice, 2018. FIP listing for Canada Atlantic cod (2J3KL) - longline/trawl/gillnet/hook & line. Webpage. Available at [Accessed Oct 2018]; and FIP Progress webpage available at [Accessed Oct 2018]

.Intertek Moody Marine Canada, 2011. Pre assessment report for 2JK3L northern cod stewardship fishery. Prepared for Icewater harvesting Inc. and the 2J3KL cod client group, July 2011.