Cod’s renaissance

Once a poster child for over-fishing, North Sea cod is staging a remarkable comeback: it’s now off the red list and even on the cusp of being assessed for sustainable status. 

If ever there was a fish that symbolised the parlous state of fish stocks as a result of over-fishing, it was North Sea cod, widely feared to be on the brink of total collapse some 10 years ago. Yet now, the fishery has improved to such an extent that it is now off the red “fish to avoid” list of the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and is even on the verge of being assessed for sustainable status by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). What a fantastic turnaround.

MCS took North Sea cod of its red list this week as part of its autumn update to FishOnline, its sustainable seafood guide. North Sea cod is now rated 4 and amber, which means it’s showing signs of improvement. “It’s fantastic to see this fishery finally off the red list,” says Samuel Stone, MCS Fisheries Officer. “Years of sacrifice and a lot of hard work have led to population increases above dangerously low levels.”

The announcement of the move to assessment was made at the World Seafood Congress (WSC), which took place earlier this month in Grimsby – the first time the event has been held in the UK in its 20-year history. Other cod fisheries are already MSC approved, such as the Barents Sea (2010), which is fished and managed by Norway and Russia, Iceland (certified in 2012) and, most recently, Greenland (May this year) – all of which produce a lot of the cod that’s eaten in the UK. The infographic below shows the various catch zones across the Northeast Atlantic, who fishes them and the signs of recovery across this whole vast area. But if North Sea cod became certified too, it would make a world of difference.

“This is a game changer,” said Dr Tom Pickerell, Technical Director of industry authority Seafish, speaking at the WSC. “This is so iconic, and not necessarily about one fishery. It is a symbol.” Indeed Nigel Edwards, technical and CSR director at Icelandic Seachill, the chilled fish supplier that is leading the drive for MSC assessment, described North Sea cod as “a barometer used frequently by the media to represent the sustainability of fish in general”.

Also speaking at the WSC, Dr Carl O’Brien of Cefas, the government’s science-based fisheries advisor, confirmed a 15% increase in cod stocks. “Things are moving in the right direction,” he said. “Icelandic Seachill is moving to certify, which will take a further 18 months to two years, and it is all good news. Eco-system management is achievable, we have clearly established goals in the UK, and we understand the base line we are starting from and have achievable objectives. Stock status is a cause for optimism. Fisheries and the environment are coming closer together for a way forward for the future.”

This confirmation of rising stock levels is the result of major changes in the way the fishery has been run that have been going on for some time. Scottish fishermen have made a huge effort, including increasing their mesh sizes on their nets, installing cameras to monitor discards, reducing the number of boats and introducing “real-time” area closures to protect spawning fish and juveniles, which we wrote about last year.

“We were waiting for this, and it is amazing news,” said Tom. “North Sea cod is known globally for all the wrong reasons; the poster child for bad fishing. What this is saying to the world is that we have turned it round: the marine managers, the scientists and the industry. Everyone has wanted this.”


Scottish trawlermen have reported recovering stock levels for quite a while now – indeed, they’ve been talking about the sea lifting with cod. Earlier this summer, Charles Clover – author of The End of the Line, the book subsequently turned into a film that was a touchstone for public awareness of over-fishing – witnessed this for himself when he went to sea with David Milne, chairman of the Scottish White Fish Producers’ Association and a trawler-owner based in Aberdeenshire who had witnessed depleting stocks over his 38-year career.

“A decade or so ago Milne would typically steam out for 10 days to fill the boat’s hold with fish, anywhere from St Kilda to Yorkshire,” wrote Charles in his Sunday Times column. Not so that day. “Ten hours from harbour [Milne] pointed to the chart on the screen and said: ‘Pick somewhere’. He shot the trawl at the randomly chosen spot and pulled up 3.5 tonnes of cod.”

Charles also underscored that this turnaround is the result of a shared effort; of the Scottish industry working “with environmentalists on measures that went far beyond the best the EU had to offer at the time, the cod recovery plan.” But the most important factor, he wrote, was “an astonishing reversal in the mindset of the Scottish industry, which went out to prove the doomsters wrong and to restore its natural resource. And it has succeeded.”

However, “the job is not done yet,” says Samuel Stone of the MCS. “Efforts of recent years need to continue in order for the fishery to head towards the green end of the spectrum.” But the charity says that North Sea cod can still now be enjoyed as an occasional treat – a fish on Friday. Meanwhile, Samuel adds that there are other endangered Atlantic cod stocks that now need “some of the attention that North Sea cod has had”.

There are other issues to be resolved, too, not least the problem of choke species, which we also wrote about last year. “This is a potentially disastrous situation whereby a lack of quota for one particular species may prevent you from risking going to sea and fishing in case you catch that species,” Tom told us then.

Perversely, the increasing abundance of certain species could make fishing incredibly difficult when the discards ban kicks in at the end of this year, particularly for mixed fisheries such as the North Sea. Hake is a good example. For historical reasons, the UK has a low level of quota for this species, yet it is now abundant in the North Sea. So much so that a single Scottish boat might be able to catch the entire hake quota on its own in a couple of weeks, which would then stop the fleet from fishing for the cod and haddock because of the risk of catching hake. (To find out more, have a look at last year’s article.) But that’s an issue for another day. Today is about good news – and, perhaps, cod and chips. Enjoy.

Many thanks to Pieter Torrez for his superb infographic, which uses the latest complete year’s dataset from ICES (2013). You can follow Pieter on Twitter @PieterTorrez.

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