North Sea cod leaves the “endangered” Red List

The Marine Conservation Society (MCS) reports 24th September 2015: The iconic European cod fishery which collapsed in the 1980s and has been ailing ever since, has finally increased above dangerously low levels and hauled itself off the MCS Fish to Avoid list.

North Sea cod leavesAs part of our autumn update to FishOnline (, North Sea cod is now rated 4 and amber, which means it’s showing signs of improvement.

“It’s fantastic to see this fishery finally off the red list. Years of sacrifice and a lot of hard work have led to population increases above dangerously low levels. Whilst this certainly is a milestone for North Sea cod, the job is not done yet. Efforts of recent years need to continue in order for the fishery to head towards the green end of the spectrum,” says MCS Fisheries Officer, Samuel Stone.

The population needs to increase above precautionary levels, and the fishing mortality should be further reduced to what’s known as the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), that’s the maximum level at which the stock can be fished without depleting the population. In fact, all cod stocks in UK waters are still being fished in excess of this level, which is required by law by 2020 at the latest.

However, the fishing industry, consumers, and the fish buying industry need to be aware that cod may never fully recover to its previous glory days of the 1970s and early 80s.

A combination of sustained over-fishing which reduced the stock and effectively the age and length at maturity of cod, plus changes to environmental conditions — namely the warming of the north-west European shelf seas — have reduced the reproductive success of North Sea cod. As waters continue to warm, the slower and lower the recovery may be.

Despite this improving news for North Sea cod, there are nine other cod stocks in the north east Atlantic that are red rated by MCS. These are cod fished from:

Celtic Sea
Faroes Plateau
Faroes Bank
Irish Sea
Norwegian Coast
West of Scotland
West Baltic

“These nine cod stocks now need some of the attention that North Sea cod has had over the last decade in order to turn things around,” says Samuel Stone. “Whilst these stocks are far smaller than the North Sea stock, they still play a very important role in the local marine ecosystem and greater efforts are needed to recover these stocks”.

The reformed Common Fisheries Policy and other EU legislation also requires that all fish stocks — that’s the number of fish in the population, not just the number fished — are recovered and maintained at healthy levels.

“The UK has played a major role in the overexploitation of many of these stocks,” says Samuel Stone, “It must now do more to improve their status. To achieve this, significant changes are needed in management including investment in research and monitoring. And many fisheries still need to better avoid incidental catches of juvenile cod when fishing for other fin fish, flat fish and nephrops also known as langoustine or scampi.”

Cod pieces

  • In 2013, the UK imported 116,000t of cod, worth £400million
  • Cod is the most imported species into the UK representing 18.7% of fish imports.
  • Most imported cod comes from the north-east Arctic and Iceland where cod fisheries are doing very well, but some cod from depleted fisheries finds its way its way into various UK cod products.
  • Consumers should ask where exactly their cod is from and seafood businesses should look carefully at their supply chains to ensure they are not inadvertently selling red rated cod. Improved labelling will help and is being campaigned for, meanwhile the MCS website shows how each cod stock is performing.

Good Cod!

The UK imported 20,339t of Atlantic cod from China in 2013. This cod is first caught in Europe, exported to China where it is cheaply processed, and then imported back in various forms of processed products. By this stage it is very difficult to know where the cod in these products was actually caught.

Other key ratings changes in the latest version of FishOnline (September 2015) include:

  • All wild caught sea bass is now on the Fish to Avoid list, reflecting the urgent need to prevent a collapse of this fishery.
  • Whiting from the Irish Sea slips onto the Fish to Avoid list. The population is severely depleted with high numbers of young fish continually being caught as bycatchBycatch The part of a fishery catch that is not a legal target of the fishery. Bycatch may be retained and landed but is usually discarded (released or returned to the sea, dead or alive). Examples: sea turtles caught in a longline fishery, sharks caught while fishing for swordfish, small or undersize red snapper caught when fishing for larger red snapper, and target species caught after a quota or limit has been reached. in nephrops fisheries
  • Wild salmon stays on the Fish to Avoid list and its situation is getting worse with the lowest number of rivers achieving conservation targets since assessments began.
  • Hake from the south-west has moved onto the Fish to Eat list, reflecting the recent certification of the Cornish fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council — a great choice!
  • There are first-time ratings on FishOnline for Pacific cod, brown shrimp, queen scallops, anchovy, brown crab, farmed native oysters and farmed arctic char.

Source: The Marine Conservation Society, 24th September 2015. For the further details see
and for more details on the Marine Conservation Society’s ratings, see


Marinet observes: Whilst it is good news to learn that North Sea cod is no longer endangered, the stock is still in a precarious position and a long distance from the point where it can be safely fished once more. The value of cod that we now import into the UK reveals the magnitude of the industry we have lost due to over-fishing, and also the value that could be restored to the UK’s fishing industry if we seriously set in place sensible long-term management policies. One such policy would be to change the mesh size of nets to stop catching all cod once they reach the age of six years. This mesh size allows a cod to live for just one year of sexual maturity before it is caught, with the result that there are virtually no large fish left in the sea. Large fish are not only more economically valuable, but are also a key to restoring the size of the stock. Every time an adult fish doubles in its length, so does its ability to produce sperm/eggs. Large, older fish are therefore vitally important to the rebuilding of stocks. Cod can live to the age of 25 years, and measure over a metre long. Removing cod from the sea at age 6 is therefore counterproductive, and the mesh size of nets needs to be enlarged to allow fish to escape being caught until they have had at least 5 years of sexual maturity, preferably far more. Present policy for the management of cod is akin to the human race expecting to be able to survive on the reproductive capability of its teenagers.

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