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Atlantic Cod

A staple for centuries


Photo: NOAA

The Atlantic Cod

Photo: NOAA

The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, is a northern Atlantic species. It is found on both sides of the Atlantic, from Greenland to North Carolina and particularly near the cape that bears its name. In 2008 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that their stocks in the Gulf of Maine – one of their two regulation areas, the other being Georges Bank – would be rebuilt in 2014. In 2011, that assessment was prolonged based on new yet controversial data, to a minimum of 2018.

Adults are heavy and have a large head, a blunt snout, and a distinct whisker like a catfish. Their coloring varies but is light, and they usually have many small spots and a pale lateral line. Cod can be as large as 4 or 5 feet and can weigh as much as 80 pounds. They can live for about 20 years byt most caught are no older than 5 years old.

Prey & Habitat
Cod feed on a variety of invertebrates and fish species. Many fish prey on larval and juvenile cod, but adults are so large that they have few predators, typically just sharks. Cod are top predators in the ocean community.. With cod and other predatory groundfish populations currently at low levels, populations of bottom-living species preyed upon by cod, such as small pelagic fishes and invertebrates like northern snow crab and northern shrimp, have increased. This has affected the amount of phytoplankton (tiny floating plants) and zooplankton (tiny animals like copepods) that support these communities.

Adults live near the sea bottom, usually at about depths between 30 to 500 feet. : In their geographic range cod move in response to changing water temperatures. The northern populations migrate more than the central and southern populations. Spawning occurs during winter and early spring.

Fishing for cod happens throughout the whole year, usually with gill nets or trawls. The height of the fishing season is usually late summer. U.S. commercial and recreational fisheries for cod are managed under the New England Fishery Management Council's Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Under this plan, cod are included in a complex of 15 groundfish species that has been managed by time/area closures, gear restrictions, and minimum size limits, otherwise known as Amendment 16.

Several other groundfish species are managed together. New measures were recently put in place to end overfishing of and continue to rebuild overfished Northeast groundfish stocks. Effective May 1, 2010, these new requirements set a limit on the amount of all groundfish that can be caught, as well as measures to mitigate if the catch limits are exceeded.

These measures have drastically changed how the cod fishery is managed – fishing vessels may now fish together in groups, or sectors. Sectors are established annually and are allotted a portion of the total available groundfish catch, based on the combined fishing history of sector member vessels. They are exempt from many gear and area restrictions but must stop fishing once the sector catches their allotment of fish; this allows fishermen more control over where and how they fish and the ability to target healthier stocks over overfished stocks. Fishermen who choose to not join a sector will 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.

Whales, dolphins, and porpoise are just some of the bycatch concerns in the New England gill net fishery. Bycatch in this fishery are regulated in part by the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, Harbor Porpoise Take Reduction Plan, Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In general, the North Atlantic cod stock is not sustainable. The Georges Bank stock is at 10 percent of its target level. The Gulf of Maine stock is currently at 58 percent of its target level, but that assessment could be highly inaccurate. Overfishing is occurring but the species might be overfished. That judgement will be classified in 2012. Without a doubt, Georges Bank is not being overfished but the Gulf of Maine is.

Part of NOAA's 10-year Aquaculture Plan is to determine whether fish like cod and haddock are suitable candidates for aquaculture. Norway, too, is evaluating the possibility.

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