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About The Species

Although populations are well below target levels, U.S. wild-caught Atlantic cod is still a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed under a rebuilding plan that allows limited harvest by U.S. fishermen.

Population Level

Significantly below target population levels. Rebuilding plans are in place.

Fishing Status

Reduced to end overfishing.

Habitat Impact

Area closures and gear restrictions protect habitat that are affected by some kinds of trawl gear.

Bycatch

Regulations and the use of modified fishing gear reduce bycatch.

Status

  • Gulf of Maine stock:
    • According to the 2015 stock assessment, the Gulf of Maine stock is overfished and below the target biomass level.
    • A revised 10-year rebuilding plan was implemented for this stock in 2014.
  • Georges Bank stock:
    • According to the 2013 stock assessment, the Georges Bank stock is overfished.
    • The Georges Bank stock is scheduled to rebuild by 2027.
  • Both stocks are subject to overfishing. Fishing is still allowed, but at reduced levels.
  • 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.
  • 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 than the average for the past four decades.
  • 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.
Appearance
  • 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).
Behavior and Diet
  • Atlantic cod can live more than 20 years.
  • They can 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.
  • Cod spawn near the ocean floor from winter to early spring.
  • Larger females can produce 3 to 9 million eggs when they spawn.
  • They are top predators in the bottom ocean community, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and fish.
Location Description

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.


Management
  • NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council manage this fishery.
  • Managed under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, which includes:
    • Permitting requirements.
    • Time/area closures to control fishing effort and protect spawning fish and habitat.
    • A limit on the amount of all groundfish that can be caught (annual catch limits), as well as response measures if the catch limits are exceeded.
    • A number of measures to reduce the fishery’s impact on habitat and other species.
    • Minimum size limits to ensure that fish are able to spawn at least once before being caught.
  • The optional catch share program can be used for cod and other groundfish species, and does the following:
    • Allows fishing vessels to fish together in groups (sectors).
    • Exempts sectors from many gear and area restrictions, but they must stop fishing for groundfish once the sector catches a predetermined allotment of fish, or acquire additional quota from other sectors.
    • Allows fishermen more control over when, where, and how they fish, as well as the ability to target healthier stocks rather than overfished stocks.
  • Fishermen who choose not to join a sector must fish under regulations that limit the number of days they can fish, amount they can catch, and when and where they can fish.
  • Because the Georges Bank stock is also found in Canadian waters, the United States coordinates management of a portion of this stock with Canada. Each country carefully monitors catch to ensure that the harvest is fairly and sustainably managed.