Atlantic cod suffers dramatic decline

Historically, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) have supported some of the world’s largest and most valuable fisheries. But Atlantic cod has been fished heavily for the past 50 years, resulting in massive population declines. Scientists agree that we are now fishing the last 10 per cent of this population.

The Atlantic cod is a demersal (bottom-living) species in the Gadidae family found on both sides of the North Atlantic, living along the seafloor at depths up to 1,312 feet (400 meters).

There are more than 30 species within the family Gadidae, including many of the most important commercial groundfishes (haddock, pollock, hake, whiting). In the Northwest Atlantic it occurs from Greenland to North Carolina.

The highest concentrations of cod in US waters are found around Georges Bank and the western Gulf of Maine. Off the coast of Canada the highest densities of cod have been observed off Newfoundland, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and on the Scotian Shelf.

Cod may reach a maximum age is in excess of 20 years, although young fish (ages two to five) generally make up the bulk of the catch. Sexual maturity is reached between ages two to four and spawning occurs during winter and early spring. Cod are omnivorous, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and fish species.

Although fishermen heavily exploited cod for centuries, technological innovations in the 20th century guaranteed the cod population’s collapse. From 1975 to 1980, the number of vessels in the US groundfish fleet nearly doubled, from around 600 to over 1,100.

Motorized boats allowed fishermen to pursue them longer and harder on the banks off North America, dragging massive trawl nets behind them. Bottom draggers destroyed not only fish stocks, but their habitat, as well.

Cod’s tendency to group together near shallow ocean floors made fishing easy, and factory ships began to process uncountable numbers of cod. Refrigeration almost eliminated the limit of cod that could be caught and sold on the international market without spoiling.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the growing pressures on cod finally proved too intense. Despite growing regulations on fishing gear and allowable catches, cod stocks continued to decline across the North Atlantic.

In 1992, the Canadian government declared a temporary moratorium on cod fishing, citing record low numbers of cod and other groundfish. More than 30,000 Canadian fishermen lost their jobs because of the belated response to overfishing. The moratorium was extended in 1994, but limited fishing for cod continued.

With stocks showing no signs of recovery, the Canadian government reluctantly banned all cod fishing off its Eastern provinces, and even identified some cod populations as endangered.

In the US, New England fishermen boasted a record catch of cod in 1991, but this came from aggressive fishing, not abundant stocks. Cod biomass shrank to a record low in the mid-1990s, and federal regulators slowly gave in to pressure to increase net mesh size, close areas of the ocean to fishing, and decrease the total allowable catch for fishermen.

However, fishermen have exceeded the catch limit every year it has been imposed, one year by 300 per cent.

A WWF report Bycatch on the High Seas: A review of the effectiveness of the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization also shows that more than 13,000 tonnes of cod and other fish are taken every year as bycatch, the accidental capture of non-targeted fish.

In 2003 alone, 5,400 tonnes of cod bycatch were reported in the southern Grand Banks, which accounts for about 90 per cent of the total population in that area and a 30-fold increase in bycatch since the fishery was closed.

Most people believe that endangered fish stocks are protected when there is a moratorium, but this is not the case. The report states that the current level of cod bycatch indicates that this species has little chance of recovery in the Grand Banks.

The critical status of the stock resulted in a seafood recommendation of ‘Avoid’ for the Atlantic Cod. Best choices for alternatives are striped bass, white seabass and trap or hook-and-line caught Pacific cod.

We are very far away from the days of 15th-century explorer John Cabot who described shoals of fish so vast that they could be caught ‘not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone.’

Cayman Sea Sense is dedicated to helping consumers make informed and environmentally positive seafood choices. For more information on this and other seafood options please visit or contact [email protected].

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