Atlantic Cod | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Atlantic Cod

Gadus morhua

Also known as

Cod, codling, codfish, bank cod, scrod, northern cod

Distribution

Temperate to sub-polar waters on the continental shelf in the North Atlantic

Écosystèmes/habitats

Heterogeneous habitats

Feeding Habits

Active predator

Conservation Status

Endangered

Taxonomie

Order Gadiformes (cods and relatives), Family Gadidae (true cods)

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Cod is an iconic species that has played an important role throughout Canada’s history. It used to be the country’s largest—and arguably the most important—fishery. Cod was so significant to the economy of Atlantic Canada that it was called “Newfoundland currency.” From the time the New World was discovered up until the cod collapse in the 1990s, this fish was the dominant commercial species of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. Today, populations in certain areas, notably the northern cod found off the southern coast of Labrador and the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, are beginning to show early signs of a comeback.

Atlantic cod are a heavy-bodied fish with a classic streamlined shape. They have a large head with a protruding upper jaw and a very distinct barbel (like a whisker) on their chin. Along with their close relatives, Atlantic cod are the only group of fish that have three distinct dorsal fins along their backs, and two distinct anal fins along their underside. 

They range in colour from yellowish-green to red and olive browns, with darker speckles and spots along the upper half of their body. Atlantic cod also have an obvious pale (cream-coloured) lateral line that runs along each side of their body from near the eye to the tail.

Cod typically grow to be around 100 centimetres long, reaching sexual maturity at lengths from 35-85 centimetres, or around three to seven years (depending on the region and water temperatures). Cod spawn in the winter and early spring for three to six weeks near the ocean floor, with a single female producing between 300,000-500,000 eggs at maturity, with up to nine million eggs for large females. 

During the larval stage, the larvae live in the upper water column feeding on plankton, then settle to the ocean floor in complex, coastal habitats (such as eelgrass beds) for their first one to four years of life as juveniles. These juveniles tend to feed on small crustaceans, such as mysid shrimp and krill, but as they mature, feed on larger and larger prey, like squid, bivalves and fish, including other, smaller cod. After maturation, they begin to exhibit off-season movements and seasonal migrations typical of adult cod. At this stage they are considered top predators in the bottom ocean community, feeding on a variety of invertebrates and fish, and only being preyed on by sharks, seals and humans.

The first Europeans arrived in Newfoundland waters in the late fifteenth century on the hunt for cod. It was an economic venture that in turn spawned one of the first permanent British settlements in North America. Cod fishing soon developed into the economic mainstay for Newfoundland and Labrador during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Large-scale commercial fishing began in the early twentieth century, with heavy exploitation occurring in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, particularly due to foreign fishing. 

In 1977, the Canadian marine jurisdiction of 200 nautical miles was introduced. From this point on, Canada had exclusive control over its coastal waters but overexploitation continued to occur by the Canadian fishing industry. By this point, the cod in Canadian waters had been exploited so intensely that populations began to decline, with fisheries catches continually dropping until a moratorium was placed on cod fishing in the early 1990s. 

The loss of cod in Canada was the biggest fisheries collapse the world has ever seen. 

Atlantic Canadian cod is not a sustainable seafood option according to most certifications, with handline-caught being the exception. Cod off of southern Newfoundland in NAFO division 3Ps is one population that has seen early signs of recovery and, as of 2016, this fishery is MSC certified.

In 2010, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed four subpopulations of Atlantic Cod as Endangered, and the population found in Canada’s Arctic marine waters as Data Deficient. These populations had declines that ranged from 64 to 99 per cent (depending on the region) over three generations. One of the biggest causes of this population decline is overfishing. 

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the majority of Atlantic cod populations have been assessed as Critical, except for those found off of the south coast of Newfoundland which have been assessed as Cautious. Most of the Atlantic cod subpopulations have shown little or no signs of recovery since their population collapses in the early 1990s. Canada greatly needs a recovery plan to bring this iconic fish back to its coastal waters.

Oceana Canada is working to recover Canada’s fisheries, including cod. Find out more about our campaigns and join us in helping to bring abundance back to our oceans.