Sustainable North Sea Cod – A Short Lived Success Story

European cod stocks reached an all-time low in the early 2000s, but in 2017 the situation had turned around and cod numbers in the North Sea had reached a thirty-five year high. Cod were back to being a good news story as the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) awarded the species a blue tick denoting that it was sustainable and could be eaten with confidence as stocks were healthy. But just two years later North Sea cod was back in trouble as stocks had declined to such an extent that MSC sustainable status was revoked. How did the North Sea cod fishery go from sustainable to threatened in such a short period of time, and what impact will this have on the future of the species in the North Sea?

European Cod – Importance and Decline

North Sea cod has a long history. The Vikings are believed to have traded salted cod well over one thousand years ago, while dried cod went on to be one of the earliest commodities to be exported and traded by European nations. Many British towns on the North Sea coast relied on cod for a large proportion of their economies, with Grimsby becoming the busiest fishing port in the world in the 1950s (1). Indeed, fish and chips (made with cod) is consistently voted one of the UK’s favourite meals.

Fish and Chips
The classic British dish of fish and chips typically uses cod.

Until the middle of the twentieth-century cod stocks in the North Sea remained relatively stable, despite the demand for this fish. However, the advent of mechanised commercial fishing and the ever-improving technology available to commercial fishermen meant that as the decades passed overfishing increased and Europe’s cod populations came under ever greater pressure. The decline of cod sparked conflict. Between the late 1950s and 1970s, there were three separate Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland as British fishermen, unable to catch cod in sufficient quantities in the North Sea, began to fish in Icelandic waters where the species was still plentiful. In the 1970s it was calculated that North Sea cod stocks were at 270,000 tonnes, by 2006 this was reduced to just 44,000 tons (2). This meant that cod numbers were below the safe biological level recommended by scientists and urgent action was needed in order to allow the species to recover.

The Cod Recovery Plan

This led to the European Union and Norway working together to implement the Cod Recovery Plan from the mid-2000s onwards. This saw a number of measures introduced such as giving more days at sea to fishermen who fished for cod selectively, the closure of fishing areas which contained high concentrations of juvenile cod, rewards for decommissioning older and larger fishing vessels and a clampdown on the illegal capture, landing and selling of cod. Of course, plans to reduce the amount of cod that commercial fishermen could catch were not always welcomed by commercial fishermen and politicians. In 2012 the then fisheries minister Richard Benyon argued against reductions in quota and further limits to days at sea for British fishermen, claiming that the measures were unnecessary and that the Cod Recovery Plan was “a bad plan” and which would have a “negative effect” (3).

MSC Logo
MSC sustainable status for cod lasted from 2017 to 2019.

Despite such opposition, the Cod Recovery Plan did work. By 2009 cod watched had been reduced by 25 per cent and continued to reduce every year after that (4). This led to the MSC verifying North Sea cod as being sustainable in 2017, meaning that consumers would see the organisation’s blue tick denoting sustainability on packaging when North Sea cod was sold at supermarkets (3). News stories appeared in the media stating that consumers could eat cod with a “clear conscience” (5), and the MSC itself stated that North Sea cod being verified as sustainable was a “momentous achievement” (4). Marcus Coleman, the chief executive of Seafish (the taxpayer-funded pro-commercial fishing quango) stated that it was “brilliant news” which would enable the “British consumer … to eat more fish more often” (4). Conservation organisations took a more cautious view, with the World Wildlife Fund pointing out that numbers of cod across all of Europe were still very low compared to the levels they were at in the 1960s (5).

A Short Lived Recovery

The realisation that the new-found health of North Sea cod stocks was not all it seemed came in late June 2019 when an Ices (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) report stated that cod numbers were once again at “critical levels” due to the species being “harvested unsustainably.” The organisation said that catches needed to be drastically reduced. In 2017 North Sea cod stocks had been assessed as being at 152,000 tons – the highest level they had been at since the early 1980s (5), leading to the award of MSC sustainable status. Stocks had been predicted to reach 181,000 tons in 2018, but Ices actually found they were only at 81,200 tons, well below the safe biological limit and putting North Sea cod stocks once again at risk of collapse (6).

The reasons for the dramatic and rapid decline have not been fully established, although there are a number of theories. It is believed that the discard ban may be a major reason as this gave commercial fishermen the right to catch more cod in return for being banned from discarding fish they did not want (7). However, discarding may still be happening illegally, meaning that the overall number of fish being taken from the sea may have increased (7). The Marine Conservation Society said that the reason for the reduction in cod stocks is simply because many of the measures such as fishing effort limitations and incentives for selective fishing were stopped once a recovery had been made and MSC sustainability status was achieved (8). Ices stated that a 63 per cent reduction in catches was necessary to halt the decline of the species in the North Sea (7).

Loss of MSC Status

The demand for cod means that there is huge pressure on stocks.

The Ices report led to an investigation by the MSC which confirmed that North Sea cod stocks had declined significantly since sustainable status was awarded two years earlier. The MSC announced that sustainable status would be revoked and North Sea cod being sold in UK supermarkets would no longer carry the blue tick logo. The MSC’s Eric Priddle told the Guardian that “the decline in the North Sea cod stock is a worrying development, with the latest stock models suggesting that the fishery has not recovered as well as previously thought” (6). Nick Underdown, of the marine conservation charity Open Seas, said to the BBC that he blamed overfishing, seabed trawling and the bycatch of juvenile fish, and stated that “our fishing industry will keep lurching from crisis to crisis” until politicians had the courage to implement long-term fixes (7). Representatives of the commercial fishing industry took a realistic view, with Bertie Armstrong of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation saying that there was “no escaping the fact that this unexpected downturn in the cod stock will be damaging for our fleet” (7). Incredibly, Aoife Martin of Seafish managed to put a propaganda-like positive spin on the news saying in the Guardian:

“North Sea cod is still a sustainably managed fishery and fishermen can still catch it within the agreed limits, there will just be less of it available to buy. The decision to reduce the allowed catch is a great example of responsible fisheries management” (6).

The Marine Conservation Society (a separate organisation to the Marine Stewardship Council, despite the similar acronym) also added North Sea cod to its red list of fish to avoid, stating in its Good Fish Guide 2019 that “cod in the North Sea, eastern English Channel and Skagerrak is below safe biological levels and is being subjected to overfishing” (8).

The Future of North Sea Cod

The fact that North Sea cod was awarded MSC status only to lose it two years later is an example of how years of positive progress in terms of conservation, selective commercial fishing and good practice can be rapidly undone. It is, unfortunately, an extremely common occurrence, with the slightest improvement in a fish stock triggering a gold rush mentality where the pressure to capitalise on the improved numbers leads to overfishing and the recovery being reversed in a very short amount of time. It is also worth remembering that despite all of the publicity and positivity which accompanied the improved stocks and MSC sustainability status being awarded in 2017 North Sea cod was, even at that point, at much lower levels than it was in the 1960s or 1970s (and even these levels were much lower than those of pre-industrial fishing).

Fishwives North Shields
An undated photo (thought to be from the 1940s) of fishwives sorting catch at North Shields, Tyne and Wear. Even when MSC sustainable status was awarded in 2017 North Sea cod stocks were well below the levels they were at in the first half of the twentieth century.

In December 2019 the annual meeting between EU member states, the EU Commission and Norway took place to decide on fishing quotas for the following year. Due to the decline in cod stocks it was agreed that the total allowable catch of North Sea cod would be halved to 17,600 tons in an attempt to allow the stocks to recover (9). Environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund welcomed the move, but representatives of the UK’s commercial fishing industry criticised the reduction in cod quota due to the impact it would have on their industry.

These plans to allow cod to recover appear to have been abandoned. In December 2021 the UK and EU held joint meetings to decide on catch limits for cod in shared waters. Despite a post-Brexit commitment to allow stocks to rebuild, quotas have been set above the levels advised by ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea). In the Rockall, the North Sea and Irish Sea areas ministers set the cod quota above ICES recommendation, and in the Celtic Sea and the West of Scotland, the quotas were set at 644 tonnes and 1,279 tonnes respectively, despite ICES saying that these areas should have zero catch limits (10). While Environment Secretary George Eustice said that this was a “balanced agreement” which provided a “strong foundation as we seek to deliver more sustainable fisheries management” (10). Environmental groups, however, hit out at the new quotas. Charles Clover, the executive director of the Blue Marine Foundation, said that the EU/UK agreement meant that the “country’s favourite fish are being sacrificed for profits ” and Jenni Grossman from Client Earth also criticised the government for agreeing to the new quotas (10).

Please note: This article was written in November 2019. Events which have taken place after this date will not be reflected in the text above.


  1. Grimsby Gains from Iceland’s Woes, Jeremy Cooke, BBC News, 23rd March 2009.
  2. North Sea Cod Off the Menu After Two Years of Fishing Sees Stocks Halve, Horton, H., The Telegraph, 24th Sept 2019.
  3. EU Cod Plan ‘Must Not Go Ahead’, BBC News, 17th December 2012.
  4. North Sea Cod Certified As Sustainable, Marine Stewardship Council Website, 19th July 2017.
  5. North Sea Cod Can be Eaten with ‘Clear Conscience’, BBC News, 19th July 2017.
  6. North Sea Cod to Lose Sustainability ‘Blue Tick’ as Fish Population Falls, Smithers, R., The Guardian, September 25th 2019.
  7. North Sea Cod Stocks Fall to ‘Critical’ Level Says Ices Report, Keane, K. BBC News, 28th June 2019.
  8. Atlantic Cod, Marine Conservation Society, July 2019.
  9. British Fishing Industry Left Unhappy by ‘Difficult’ 50% Cut to North Sea Cod Quota, i Newspaper, 17th December 2019.
  10. Cod Stocks ‘Heading for Record Low After Fishing Ministers Ignore Advice’, The Times, 22nd December 2021.