Raw Atlantic cod fillets should have a glistening translucent flesh ranging from white to pinkish in coloration. Avoid fish with signs of drying or brown spots. The loin, sometimes called the "captain's cut" is the thickest part of the fillet and considered the best part of the fish. Atlantic cod has several differences when compared to Pacific cod: the fish has a silvery subcutaneous layer that Pacific cod doesn't have, less moisture content, more firm texture, a sweeter flavor, and generally a larger market size. Atlantic cod under 2.5 pounds are often referred to as 'scrod.' Many buyers recommend Atlantic cod caught by handline over trawl-caught cod for increased freshness.
Key sustainability sourcing notes for Atlantic cod based on combining landings data from 2014-2016 and the most recent MSC certifications and Seafood Watch ratings as of January 2019:
~65% of global Atlantic cod landings are MSC-certified, landings are primarily in Norway ~35%, Russia ~30%, and Iceland ~20%
<2% of U.S. Atlantic cod landings can be identified as meeting the "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating (handline-caught)
~25% of U.S. Atlantic cod landings meet the "Avoid (red)" rating (bottom gillnet, bottom longline, and bottom trawl)
~75% of U.S. landings are unrated/unknown
Annual global landings in 2016 decreased ~3% compared to 2014 but increased ~20% compared to 2012
U.S. landings in 2016 decreased ~40% compared to 2014 and decreased ~70% compared to 2012
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).
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.
Science & Management
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, Gulf of Maine cod spawning stock biomass was estimated to be 11,868 metric tons in 2010. This estimate remains well below the target biomass level of 61,218 metric tons, so the Gulf of Maine stock is considered "overfished."
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 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 disclaimer 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 total allowable catch quotas for each country as well as in-season monitoring of the U.S. catch of cod on eastern Georges Bank.
Atlantic cod is found in both the Northwest and Northeast Atlantic. It is highly fecund with a high reproductive potential but has long been overfished, causing dramatic declines. Many cod stocks are still experiencing overfishing, especially in the U.S. and Canada, although cod in the northeast Arctic and Iceland tends to be more abundant and is currently being fished more sustainably.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Seafloor-dwelling Atlantic cod are primarily caught with bottom trawls, which are known to cause substantial damage to marine habitats. A small number of Atlantic cod in the U.S. are caught with bottom longlines, which causes low to moderate damage. The handlines and gillnets also used to catch Atlantic cod cause less destruction than trawling so the effect on the seabed is considered minimal, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The handline and longline Atlantic cod fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic tend to be relatively selective while bottom trawls and gillnets can accidentally catch non-targeted fish as well as marine mammals. The Monterey Bay Aquarium reported that bycatch with those gear types include overfished yellowtail flounder, harbor porpoise, skate species as well as undersized cod. Information about bycatch in the Iceland Atlantic cod fishery is poor but may include plaice, megrim, long rough dab and witch flounder. Despite the lack of bycatch data for Iceland, some bycatch reduction measures are in place.
Atlantic cod abundance on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine is in an overfished state and of high conservation concern, with fishing pressure on both stocks remaining too high as well, the Monterey Bay Aquarium reported in November 2013. Based on assessments done on both stocks in 2012, the quotas for 2013 were significantly reduced to help them rebuild, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. Management measures under the New England Fisheries Management Council include an observer program, bycatch reporting as well as temporary and permanent closed areas. Management measures in Canada are moderately effective since cod stocks haven’t fully recovered there. Atlantic cod fisheries in Iceland and Eastern Baltic are considered effectively managed and the fisheries in the Northeast Arctic and Europe have moderately effective management while management of the cod fishery around Rockall in the UK and the bottom trawl in Greenland is ineffective according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.