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Atlantic cod

Latin name: Gadus morhua

IUCN Red List conservation status

About: Atlantic cod

The notorious collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s, which resulted in the loss of around 40,000 fishing jobs, shows just how catastrophic overfishing can be.

Although cod is more famous for its flavour than its behaviour, a closer look reveals a fascinating animal whose history is closely entwined with our own.

Atlantic cod is recognised as one of the world’s most important commercial fish species and has been caught and sold for well over a thousand years – since at least the time of the Vikings. It is so valuable, in fact, that wars have even been fought over the right to fish in prime cod territory.

  • Cod are carnivorous and eat a variety of prey from worms to crabs, prawns and even other fish.
  • The goatee-like appendage on a cod’s chin is called a barbel. This useful organ has taste buds that allow the cod to find food in murky water.
  • The wavy white line running down a cod’s flanks from gills to tail (its ‘lateral line’) is made up of receptor cells that can detect vibrations in the water.
  • Large females can release up to five million eggs.
  • Body colour varies depending on habitat, but ranges from gold to pale grey or even green (where there is a lot of algae in the water).
  • Although cod can reach up to 1.5 metres in length and weigh up to 40 kg, the targeting of large, valuable individuals by fishers means that they are decreasing in average size.


In this video, courtesy of Community of Arran Seabed Trust, you can see a variety of Scottish sea creatures including juvenile cod.

The Atlantic cod is threatened by severe overfishing and the destruction of important habitat areas, such as nursery grounds where juveniles mature.

Modern technology has allowed us to find fish more effectively, harvest them more efficiently, and fish areas that were once out of reach. As a result, commercial species such as cod have nowhere left to hide, and no time to recover.

The notorious collapse of Canada’s Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s, which resulted in the loss of around 40,000 jobs, shows just how catastrophic overfishing can be for people as well as the environment. Even today, 20 years after its collapse, this fishery is still only in the early, fragile stages of recovery – despite very little fishing in the intervening years. This serves as a grave warning about the knock-on effects of intensive fishing activities that damage marine habitats.

European cod stocks have likewise reached historical lows since the mid-1980s, which is one of the reasons Fauna & Flora International has begun working with partners and communities in Scotland to establish protected areas that will offer cod and other marine species safe refuges from destructive fishing activities, giving them the chance to recover.

In so doing, we are not only helping to secure the cod’s long-term future, but also the livelihoods of those who depend on healthy stocks.

Take a closer look to learn more about this work.

Main image courtesy of Joachim S. Müller and the Encyclopedia of Life, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

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