With sea surface temperatures reaching record highs on the Northeast Continental Shelf during the first half of 2012, scientists are predicting profound impacts on the area's ocean life. For instance, Atlantic cod are moving northeast of their historic distribution in response to warming waters. What this means for this important fishery resource is so far unknown—but we do know things are changing and we must continue monitoring and adapting to these changes. LEARN MORE
- Gray triggerfish
- Greater amberjack
- Ocean perch
- Sea Bass
- Turbot (Greenland)
ALSO KNOWN AS:
Cod, Codling, Scrod cod (a term for small fresh cod; other sizes are "markets" and "steakers")
U.S. wild-caught from Maine to Virginia
- FISHING RATE
- HABITAT IMPACTS
Click the icons to learn more about each criteria
Atlantic codLAUNCH GALLERY
U.S. fishermen have been harvesting Atlantic cod since the 17th century. Cod was said to be so abundant then that you could almost walk across the ocean on their backs. Fisheries for the species were booming, too – in fact, cod was one of the most lucrative products traded during colonial times. More recently, New England groundfish such as cod had their heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s. Unfortunately, under this high fishing pressure throughout the latter part of the 20th century, U.S. stocks of Atlantic cod came close to commercial collapse in the mid-1990s. A concerted effort to rebuild these stocks began soon after. The New England Fishery Management Council controlled new vessels' entry into the fishery and the amount of time spent fishing, reducing fishing pressure on the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod stocks to about one-third the 1994 level.
The 2012 assessments of Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod indicated both stocks are seriously overfished, and are not recovering as fast as expected. Based on these assessments, quotas for both stocks have been significantly reduced in 2013 to help ensure overfishing does not occur and that these stocks rebuild. The Gulf of Maine cod quota was cut by 80 percent, and the Georges Bank cod quota was cut by 61 percent. NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council continue to work on management measures that will further protect cod stocks and provide opportunities for fishermen to target other healthy fish stocks instead of cod.
LOCATION & HABITAT
Atlantic cod is found on both sides of the 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 the western Gulf of Maine. In the middle of its range, cod sometimes migrate in response to changing water temperatures. Adult cod live near the ocean floor along rocky slopes and ledges. They prefer to live in cold water at depths of around 30 to 500 feet on bottoms with coarse sediments, rather than on finer mud and silt.
Atlantic cod can live over 20 years and grow up to 51 inches and 77 pounds. They are capable of reproducing at 2 to 3 years old, when they are between 12 and 16 inches long. Atlantic cod spawn near the ocean floor from winter to early spring. They have high reproductive potential (fecundity). In fact, female cod can produce 3 to 9 million eggs when they spawn.
Atlantic cod are top predators in the bottom ocean community, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and fish. Many fish prey on larval and juvenile cod, but adults are so large they have few predators, typically just sharks.
Adult Atlantic cod are heavy-bodied and have a large head, blunt snout, and a distinct barbel (a whisker-like organ, like on a catfish) under their lower jaw. Their coloring varies, often changing depending on bottom habitats, but they usually have many small spots and a pale lateral line (the faint line that runs lengthwise down each side of the fish, from around the gill covers to the base of the tail).
Scientists at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center conduct research bottom trawl surveys every year during the fall and spring throughout the Northeast continental shelf. These surveys collect data on the environment as well as biological samples from fish caught during research trawling. These data – along with similar data taken during surveys conducted by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, from sampling the landed catch, reported by fishermen and fish dealers, and collected by fishery observers – are used to help researchers monitor the condition of Atlantic cod and other species over time.
Both the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks are at very low levels. In stock assessments, their abundance is measured in terms of "spawning stock biomass" – the amount of fish in the population capable of reproducing. According to the most recent scientific stock assessment (2013), Gulf of Maine cod spawning stock biomass was estimated to be 9,903 or 10,221 metric tons, and will not meet its rebuilding deadline of 2014. A new rebuilding program is being developed for this stock to help it rebuild as quickly as possible. This estimate remains well below the target biomass level of 54,743 or 80,200 metric tons, so the Gulf of Maine stock is considered overfished. The New England Fishery Management Council is developing a new rebuilding program to rebuild the stock as quickly as possible.
Spawning stock biomass for Georges Bank cod was estimated at 13,216 metric tons in the most recent assessment (2013). This estimate is well below the target level of 186,535 metric tons, so the Georges Bank stock is also overfished. The Georges Bank stock is scheduled to rebuild by 2026.
A primary source of rebuilding potential is the number of young fish coming into the population (recruitment). Recruitment for both stocks has been well below average in nearly every year since the 1980s.
With funding from NOAA ‘s Northeast Cooperative Research Program, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute coordinated the Northeast Regional Cod-tagging Program for several years to research how Atlantic cod move in the Gulf of Maine region and to learn more about their growth and spawning habits. Several research organizations and commercial fishermen were involved in tagging over 100,000 Atlantic cod in the Gulf of Maine, neighboring Canadian waters, and southern New England waters. Ideally, when a fisherman caught and kept a tagged cod, they would report a variety of data on the fish including when, where, and how it was caught and its size and spawning condition. Collecting and analyzing these data has helped scientists, managers, and fishermen understand more about cod and improve future assessments of cod resource and management of the fishery.
Atlantic cod has been the focus of aquaculture research for a number of years. The basic technology for rearing this species has been around for decades, but commercial interest in farming cod is just now developing due to limited supply of wild-caught cod and recent advances in aquaculture techniques. Around the world, several universities and research institutions have conducted a number of research projects with industry partners to advance commercial production of cod.
Harvesting Atlantic cod
Atlantic cod share the same habitat as several other groundfish species in the Northeast. These groundfish are often caught together in the same fishery, the Northeast Multispecies Fishery. Commercial fishermen harvest cod year-round, primarily with otter trawls and gill nets. A small percentage is caught with handlines and longlines.
Otter trawls can impact habitat and incidentally catch other fish and marine mammals. Fishermen follow a number of measures to reduce any impacts:
- Restrictions on the size of fishing gear in certain areas to reduce habitat impacts.
- Areas closed to fishing year-round or seasonally to protect habitat and spawning cod.
- Requirement that the mesh on trawl nets be large enough to allow small fish to escape. The minimum size allowed for the mesh of trawl nets is currently the largest in the history of the Northeast groundfish fishery. The larger-mesh nets catch fewer small fish, and this directly reduces bycatch.
- A cap on the amount of groundfish bycatch that fishing vessels can take.
- Use of trawl gear that is more selective for the target fish that can be landed must be used in certain areas.
- Voluntary measures to reduce the chance of interacting with marine mammals, including reducing the amount of turns made by the fishing vessel and tow times while fishing at night, and increasing communication between vessels about the presence of marine mammals in an area.
Gillnets catch low levels of other fish but can unintentionally catch marine mammals, especially harbor porpoise and large cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in the Northeast gillnet fishery. Fishermen follow a number of management measures to prevent bycatch in this fishery, including those required by the Harbor Porpoise and Large Whale Take Reduction Plans. Measures include gear modifications, seasonal closures, and a requirement to have acoustic alarms on nets to prevent harbor porpoises from getting entangled in gillnets. At-sea fishery observers monitor bycatch in the groundfish fishery.
Most vessels that actively target groundfish are prohibited from discarding legal-sized groundfish, including cod.
Who’s in charge? NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council
Current management: Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan
- Permitting requirements.
- Time/area closures to control fishing effort and protect spawning fish and habitat.
- A number of measures to reduce the fisheries’ impact on habitat and other species (see above).
- Minimum size limits to ensure that fish are able to spawn at least once before being caught.
Managers implemented new measures for the Northeast groundfish fishery in 2010 to end overfishing of and continue to rebuild overfished Northeast groundfish stocks (and maintain healthy ones). These measures include:
- A limit on the amount of all groundfish that can be caught, as well as measures to respond if the catch limits are exceeded.
- Optional catch share program – fishing vessels may fish together in groups (sectors), which are established annually and are allotted a portion of the total available groundfish catch, based on the combined fishing history of sector member vessels. Sectors are exempt from many gear and area restrictions but must stop fishing for groundfish once the sector catches their allotment of fish. This allows fishermen more control over when, where, and how they fish and the ability to target healthier stocks rather than overfished stocks. Fishermen who choose not to join a sector must fish under the existing system of regulations, with limits on the number of days they can fish, amount they can catch, and when and where they can fish.
The Georges Bank cod stock is a transboundary resource so the United States coordinates management of a portion of this stock with Canada. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada manages the Canadian fishery on Georges Bank under an individual quota system. An informal understanding between Canada and the United States was implemented in 2004 to share the harvest of cod in the transboundary portion of the stock. This understanding includes quotas for each country as well as in-season monitoring of the U.S. and Canadian catch of cod on eastern Georges Bank.
As managers have implemented strict measures to reduce fishing pressure on Atlantic cod to help the population rebuild, U.S. landings have generally declined since the 1990s. However, as the stocks rebuild, limits on the amount of cod that can be caught can be raised. The 2011 landings of Atlantic cod totaled almost 17.6 million pounds, down slightly from 2010.
The value of this catch was up significantly—2011 landings of Atlantic cod were valued at $32.6 million, an increase of $4.5 million (more than 16 percent) compared with 2010.
Recreational fishing also occurs year-round; peak activity occurs during the late summer in the lower Gulf of Maine and during late autumn to early spring from Massachusetts southward. Regulations include minimum fish sizes and possession limits for private recreational anglers and charter and party vessels (vessels that take paying passengers). Cod cannot be kept if caught in the Gulf of Maine from November 1 through April 15. Recreational vessels can fish for cod in areas otherwise closed to commercial vessels.
Atlantic cod is harvested on both sides of the North Atlantic by Iceland, Canada, Norway, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. You can find cod in the market in a variety of fresh, frozen, and value-added forms, from whole fish and fillets to salted cod and cod cheeks.
Atlantic cod has a mild, clean flavor and large flakes. It’s less firm than haddock and sweeter than Pacific cod. When raw, the meat is translucent, ranging from white to pinkish in color; when cooked, it’s opaque white. (Seafood Business, 2011)
|Serving Weight||100 g|
|Fat, total||0.67 g|
|Saturated fatty acids, total||0.131 g|
|Sugars, total||0 g|
|Fiber, total dietary||0 g|
Atlantic Cod Table of Nutrition