COD: Species, Fishing and Collapse of the Atlantic Cod

Home | Category: Commercial and Sport Fishing and Fish


Atlantic cod

Atlantic cod (Scientific name: Gadus morhua) are a well-known food fish that can weigh up to 35 kilograms (77 pounds) and reach lengths of 1.3 meters (4.3 feet). Their lifespan is more than 20 years. Also known as cod, codling, scrod cod, markets, steakers, they live in North Atlantic Ocean. In the Northwest Atlantic, cod range from Greenland to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In U.S. waters, cod is most common on Georges Bank and in the western Gulf of Maine. [Source: NOAA]

Atlantic cod are heavy-bodied with a large head, blunt snout, and a distinct barbel (a whisker-like organ, like on a catfish) under the lower jaw. Their coloring varies, ranging from light yellowish-green to red and olive, usually with darker speckles on the head, fins, tail, and body. The belly is light colored and usually spotless. Individuals can change color readily. Cod have an obvious lateral line (the faint line that runs lengthwise down each side of the fish). Sometimes they have a golden color when viewed, near the rocky sea bottom.

Cod is an iconic fish of New England, Historically, cod was so abundant off New England that early explorers named Cape Cod for the fish. Furthermore, Gloucester was established by a colonial charter issued to profit from cod fishing, and a painted “sacred cod” carved from pine has hung in the Massachusetts state house since 1784 as a symbol of prosperity. Even a few decades ago it was not unusual to come across cod that weighed over 91 kilograms (200 pounds) Due to high fishing pressure throughout the latter part of the 20th century, there are fewer fish in the U.S. stocks of Atlantic cod and but it rare to find ones that weigh over 10 kilograms 22 pounds)

Atlantic cod live near the ocean floor along rocky slopes and ledges. They prefer to live in cold water, at depths of around 10 to 150 meters (30 to 500 feet), on bottoms with coarse sediments, rather than on finer mud and silt.. Atlantic cod are top predators in the bottom ocean community, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and fish.. They are capable of reproducing at 2 to 3 years old, when they are between 30 and 40 centimeters (12 and 16 inches) long. They spawn near the ocean floor from winter to early spring. Larger females can produce 3 to nine million eggs when they spawn. Juvenile cod are fed on by herring. They often live seagrass beds, which serves as a nursery and provide cover.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Books: “Cod” by Mark Kurlansky; “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse” by Dean Bavington, (University of British Columbia; 2010)

Atlantic Cod Collapse

Collapse of Atlantic cod stacks off of Newfoundland in the 1990s

Fish and chips has traditionally been made with cod. Atlantic cod’s delicate white flesh is what made fish and chips so tasty. Atlantic cod were once so abundant they attracted European settlers to America. Their numbers were greatly depleted by industrial fishing after World War II. Many fishing grounds have been closed. Fish stocks have been slow to come back. The scarcity of cod has caused the price of fish and chips to rise to unheard of prices. Cod has now been largely replaced by pollack in fish and chips.

Atlantic cod fisheries off New England and eastern Canada collapsed and have yet to rebound despite restrictions on fishing in the area. The Georges Bank haddock were similarly overfished but their numbers came back. Scientists say that only 10 percent of the stocks of Atlantic cod remain from when the fish was at its peak. In 1860 fishermen in the Gulf of Maine caught 20 times more cod than commercial fleets do today.

Cod was heavily fished by industrial trawlers off Canada’s Grand Banks for decades. By 1992, the species’ population had been reduced to a few percentage points of what it was even in the 1960s. And the average size of caught Atlantic cod had decreased by 30 percent. Canada put a moratorium on cod fishing, abruptly ending an industry that supported entire communities.

Dean Bavington, the author of “Managed Annihilation: An Unnatural History of the Newfoundland Cod Collapse”, observes that two hundred billion pounds worth of cod were taken from Canada’s Grand Banks before 1992, when the cod simply ran out. One reason that cod have had such a hard time coming back is that adult cod feed on herring and herring in turn feed on young cod. When the adult cod were fished out the number of herring increased and they ate more young cod, preventing them from maturing into adults.

NOAA Fisheries is working to rebuild Atlantic cod populations. A primary source of rebuilding potential is the number of young fish coming into the population (recruitment). Over the past 20 years, recruitment has varied for the Gulf of Maine stock, and has been well below average for the Georges Bank stock. [Source: NOAA]

Atlantic Cod Fishing

making cod bricks

In 2020, the commercial landings in the U.S. of Atlantic cod totaled 725,000 kilograms (1.6 million pounds) and were valued at more than $3.5 million, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. Cod are commonly harvested using trawl nets, gillnets, bottom longlines, and rod and reel. Gillnets, longlines, and rod and reel used to harvest cod have little to no impact on habitat. Closed areas and gear restrictions reduce habitat impacts from trawl nets. Fishermen follow management measures designed to reduce interactions with marine mammals, including gear modifications, seasonal closures, and use of marine mammal deterrents.

There are two stocks of Atlantic cod in U.S. waters: 1) the Gulf of Maine stock and 2) the Georges Bank stock.. According to the 2021 stock assessment, the Gulf of Maine stock is overfished and below the target biomass level. A 10-year rebuilding plan was implemented for this stock in 2014 and the stock is targeted to rebuild by 2024. This is the second rebuilding plan for this stock. According to the 2013 stock assessment the Georges Bank stock is overfished and subject to overfishing based on the 2021 stock assessment. Both stocks are subject to overfishing. Fishing is still allowed, but at reduced levels. Area closures and gear restrictions protect habitat that are affected by some kinds of trawl gear. Regulations and the use of modified fishing gear reduce bycatch.

NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council manage Gulf of Maine cod. NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council collaborate with Canada to jointly manage Georges Bank cod, because the stock spans the international boundary. Atlantic cod, along with other groundfish in New England waters, are managed under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, which includes: 1) Permitting requirements for commercial vessels; 2) Separate management measures for recreational vessels; 3) Year-round and seasonal area closures to protect spawning fish and habitat; 4) Minimum fish sizes to prevent harvest of juvenile fish; 5) Annual catch limits, based on best available science. An optional sector (catch share) program can be used for cod and other groundfish species. The sector program allows fishermen to form harvesting cooperatives and work together to decide when, where, and how they harvest fish.

Cod are highly prized by recreational fishermen. They are commonly harvested by anglers using lures or bait. Fishing occurs year-round. In 2020, recreational anglers landed 386,000 pounds of Atlantic cod, according to the NOAA Fisheries recreational fishing landings database. Regulations include minimum fish sizes, possession limits, and closed seasons.

Pacific Cod

Pacific cod

Pacific cod (Scientific name: Gadus macrocephalus) are also known as gray cod because of their color — they’re brown or grayish with dark spots or patterns on the sides and a paler belly. Also known as cod, Alaska cod, and true cod, they have a long chin barbell (a whisker-like organ near the mouth, like on a catfish) and dusky fins with white edges. [Source: NOAA]

In contrast to Atlantic stocks, Stocks of Pacific cod are still relatively healthy. feed on clams, worms, crabs, shrimp, and juvenile fish.. They school together and move seasonally from deep outer and upper continental shelf areas (where they spawn) to shallow middle-upper continental shelf feeding grounds.

Pacific cod live for 20 years or less. They can grow up to two meters (6 feet) in length. Females are able to reproduce when they’re 4 or 5 years old, when they are between 1.6 and 1.9 feet long. Pacific cod spawn from January to May on the continental shelf edge and upper slope in waters 330 to 820 feet deep. Females can produce more than 1 million eggs when they spawn.

Pacific cod are found in the coastal North Pacific Ocean, from the Bering Sea to Southern California in the east and to the Sea of Japan in the west. They are less common in Central California and are rare in Southern California. During the winter, Pacific cod live on the continental shelf edge and upper continental slope in waters 300 to more than 800 feet deep.In the summer, they move to shallower water (300 feet deep or less). Larvae and small juveniles are found throughout the water column, while large juveniles and adults live near the ocean floor and prefer habitats of mud, sand, and clay..

In Alaska, scientists and managers determine the population status of Pacific cod based on estimates of spawning biomass — a measure of the number of females in the population that are able to reproduce. Estimated biomass has fluctuated over the past few decades; the stock increased rapidly, peaked in the 1980s, then declined slightly and stabilized. [Source: NOAA]

Pacific Cod Fishing

Cod fishing in the eastern Atlantic in 2011

Pacific cod is the second largest commercial groundfish catch off Alaska and virtually all of the United States. In 2021, commercial harvest of the fish totaled 150 million kilograms (330 million pounds), and was worth $86.5 million, according to the NOAA Fisheries commercial fishing landings database. Most Pacific cod comes from the Bering and Barents Seas and the Gulf of Alaska and is harvested by the United States, Canada, Russia, and Korea. [Source: NOAA]

Pacific cod are typically harvested along with several different groundfish species with longlines (hook-and-line) and bottom trawl gear. Pots (or traps) and jig gear are also used to catch Pacific cod. In the Gulf of Alaska the dominant gear has been pots, in the Aleutian Islands trawl gear is predominantly used, and in the Bering Sea longline gear is used most frequently. Bottom trawl vessels cause minimal damage when targeting Pacific cod over soft ocean bottoms. Trawls can have negative impacts in areas where Pacific cod are associated with living structural habitats, such as corals and sea whips. Recreational fishing for Pacific cod in Alaska is minor compared to commercial fishing and mainly takes place in state waters (within 3 miles of shore). Recreational fishermen follow state regulations.

Some areas are closed to certain gear types to protect sensitive habitat and organisms. In Alaska, measures restricting the type of gear fishermen may use and when and where they may fish reduce bycatch of other species in the Alaska Pacific cod fisheries. There are limits on the amount of Pacific halibut that can be incidentally caught in trawl and hook-and-line fisheries. Longlines are known to catch seabirds incidentally, but current measures are reducing seabird bycatch. On the West Coast, area closures, reduced trip limits, non-retention rules, gear restrictions, and variable catch limits are used to help minimize impacts to overfished rockfish and prevent bycatch.

There are four stocks of Pacific cod: 1) Bering Sea, 2) Gulf of Alaska, 3) Aleutian Islands, and 4) the Pacific coast. According to the most recent stock assessments: The Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska stocks are not overfished (2021 and 2020 stock assessments) and not subject to overfishing based on 2021 catch data. The Aleutian Islands stock is not subject to overfishing based on 2021 catch data, but data are insufficient to determine the population status at this time (2021 stock assessment). The Pacific coast population of Pacific cod has never been formally assessed, but is not subject to overfishing based on 2020 catch data.

U.S. wild-caught Pacific cod is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations. The Bering Sea stock is above the target population level. The Gulf of Alaska stock is below the target level, but fishing rate promotes population growth. The fishing rate is at recommended levels. Area closures and gear restrictions protect habitat that are affected by some types of fishing gear used to harvest Pacific cod. Measures restricting the type of gear fishermen may use and when and where they may fish reduce bycatch of other species in the U.S. Pacific cod fisheries.

Pacific Cod Fishing Management

NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, manage the Pacific cod fishery in Alaska. The species are managed under the Gulf of Alaska Groundfish Fishery Management Plan: Total allowable catch is allocated by gear type and processing sector in the western and central Gulf of Alaska and by processing sector (90 percent to the inshore sector and 10 percent to the offshore sector) in the eastern Gulf of Alaska. The species are managed under the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Groundfish Fishery Management Plan: 10.7 percent of the allowable catch is allocated to the community development quota program, which benefits fishery-dependent communities in western Alaska. The rest is allocated among the various fishing sectors based on gear type, vessel size, and ability to process their catch. [Source: NOAA]

In the Gulf of Alaska, Being Sea, and Aleutian Islands fishermen must have a permit to participate in these fisheries, and the number of available permits is limited to control the amount of fishing. Managers determine how much Pacific cod can be caught and then allocate this catch quota among groups of fishermen. Catch is monitored through record keeping, reporting requirements, and observer monitoring. Fishermen must retain all of their Pacific cod catch.

NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council manage the Pacific cod fishery on the West Coast. The species are managed under the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan: 1) Pacific cod are rarely available in large numbers to be caught in the groundfish fishery off the West Coast. Managers use recent historical harvest numbers to set precautionary limits on annual catch for this population. The West Coast groundfish trawl fishery is managed under a trawl rationalization catch share program.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated April 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.