North Sea cod

Why not?

Cod is perhaps one of the most popular whitefish eaten in The Netherlands and is also of great commercial importance to the Danes, Norwegians, and Russians. Cod also swims in our own North Sea and the fishery has carried the MSC ecolabel for two years.

Unfortunately, that ecolabel has recently been withdrawn due to a large decline in the stock. This has hardly affected the supply of cod in our supermarkets as they come from northern seas and almost always carry the MSC ecolabel.

Fried fish

Cod used to be widely used for fried fish but, due to financial reasons it is currently more common to use a different kind of whitefish, such as Alaska pollock. However, many consumers still think they are eating cod when ordering a portion of fried fish.

VISwijzer advice

The stock of North Sea cod is simply too depleted at the moment. Therefore, it is better to avoid eating cod originating from this area. . A good alternative is MSC labelled cod or other white fish such as Alaska pollack or haddock. Visit the extensive VISwijzer for full advice.

Why is North Sea cod listed as red?

North Sea cod is listed as red on the VISwijzer. Atlantic cod is highly vulnerable to fishing pressure and several stocks have collapsed or are recovering from being overfished in the past.

Bottom trawling is the most commong method for catching cod in the North Sea. This fishing method has a significant impact on the ecosystem, as it damages the seafloor and has high amounts of bycatch.

North Sea cod is also often caught as bycatch in other fisheries. This issue is being addressed through the landing obligation but remains a threat to vulnerable cod stocks.

Is North Sea cod overfished?

Mulitple cod stocks in the North-Atlantic Ocean are overfished, including the North Sea cod stock. The North Sea cod fishery was once a good example of sustainable management. However, despite ICES advice to decrease fishing effort, fishery ministers decided to allow an increase in catches.

Cod is highly vulnerable to overfishing as this species only reaches sexual maturity after four years. Due to extensive overfishing, cod catches have exponentially declined in hte past 40 years. It is likely that the cod stocks in the Atlantic Ocean will never able to fully recover without a drastic change in fisheries management.

Figure 1: Catches in 1000t from 1980 to 2019 including discard data.

Overfishing cod can affect the whole ecosystem in ways that go beyond the collapse of cod stocks. Cod is a predator that preys on smaller fish. A decrease in the number of predators will lead to an increase in small fish, and this can result in a major imbalance in the food chain.

Figure 3: Before and after overfishing of Atlantic cod (Hammerschlag, et al., 2019).
Does climate change affect Cod?

Atlantic cod are already being affected by climate change. Rising sea temperatures are making certain areas to warm for cod, which is pushing them upwards towards colder, northern waters.

A warmer ocean is problematic for cod reproduction. In addition to the fact that cod stocks are under pressure, this can result in a futher decline of cod in the sea.

Futhermore, Atlantic cod plays a major role in the ecosytems in which it lives. As the concequences of overfishing have already resulted in significant changes to ecosystems, it is expected that forced migration due to warming seas will only exacerbate the situation.

How large is the carbon footprint of the North Sea cod fishery?

The carbon footprint of the North Sea cod fishery is largely determined by fishing techniques and their fuel consumption.

Beam trawling, and other bottom trawling methods, are known to consume the most fuel. This is due to the weight of the fishing gear that is dragged along the seafloor. In addition, disturbance of the seafloor also results in the release of CO2 that was previously stored in the seabed.

Although the fuel consumption of the gillnet fishery is significantly lower than that of the bottom trawling methods, the carbon footprint is still too high. This is mainly due to the size of the vessels and the vast distances that they travel. 

How is North Sea cod caught and how is this affecting the ecosystem?

Capture methods for North Sea cod vary widely and include demersal otter trawling, demersal and pelagic gillnets, and longlines. The most common method used in the North Sea fishery for cod is the bottom otter trawl.

Bottom trawlers drag large, weighted nets along the seafloor to catch large aggregations of fish. Numerous studies have shown that bottom trawling causes significant damage to ecosystems and can can major ecological issues. Furthermore, all types of bottom trawling are associated with large amounts of bycatch. These negative effects have led the European Commission to discus a trawling ban by 2040.

The gillnet fishery uses vertically placed nets to catch fish by entrapping them behind their gills. The longline fishery uses hooks and lines. Both methods have little to no effect on the seafloor, however, they are associated with large amounts of bycatch of protected and threatened species such as porpoises, sharks, and rays.

How is North Sea cod managed?

North Sea cod is managed under the Common Fisheries Policy and is managed through quota (i.e. how many kilos may be caught), and minimum reference sizes (i.e. the number of centimetres a fish has to be before it can be caught).

In 2021, the EU expressed her concern that cod stocks in Norwegian and Russian waters were not well-managed and were being overfished. The EU opes that agreements can be made between the EU, Norway, and Russia to create joint management of cod in these Arctic regions.

Despite these concerns, the management of Atlantic cod in the north-east Atlantic is still not following the scientific advice of ICES and the EU continues to issue quotas that exceed ICES’ scientific advice.

Are there illegal practices in the cod fishery?

So far, there is no knowledge of illegal cod fishery in the North Sea. However, illegal catches are being reported in Arctic regions.

The Norwegian government claimed that 100.000 tonnes of cod, valued at 225 million euro, was caught illegally in the Barents Sea in 2005. This illegal fishery is incredibly profitable and is seen as an international crime.

Fraud also occurs through mislabelling. In a recent study, 226 frozen cod products from supermarkets and fish shops in the UK and Ireland were analysed, of which 19.5% of the samples had the wrong label or tag on the fish. This mislabelling could be human error but was probably done deliberately to sell cheaper fish such as pollock, whiting, and haddock as expensive cod.

When is cod called Skrei?

Skrei is Atlantic cod that, unlike other cod, migrate from the Barents Sea to the Lofoten Islands to spawn. During this journey, Skrei also have a different diet with makes the meat whites and gives it more structure.

This makes Skrei an attractive target, as the quality of cod is usually lower during the spawning period (between December and May). This is why Skrei is normally caught off the coast of Norway between the months of January and April, before they reach the Lofoten Islands.

Skrei is not caught in the North Sea and is listed as red on the VISwijzer.

Is cod being farmed?

Yes, cod is currently being farmed in Norway (94%) and Iceland (6%). However, most of the cod on the market is wild caught by fisheries (99.97%). This means that only 0.03% of cod that can be found on the market is farmed.

Can I still eat North Sea cod?

North Sea cod is listed as red on the VISwijzer. This means that consuming cod has detrimental effects for both the species itself and the ecosystem in which it resides. It is not possible to eat uncertified cod without contributing to these damaging effects.

Are there vegan alternatives for cod?

There are quite a few vegan products that can replace cod available in Dutch supermarkets. These include “Jumbo Tasty Veggie Gourmet Vegan” (Jumbo), “Salt & Vinegar Battered Fishless Filets” and “Lemon and Pepper Breaded Fishless Filets” (Quorn) “Tasty Codd”, or “De Lekkerbeck” (Vegan ZeaStar).