‘Let them eat cod’ as fish stocks rise

Back on the menu: Almost 70,000 tonnes of cod are eaten in the UK every year.

After years of restrictions, cod is now sustainable and can be eaten with a “clear conscience”. What lessons should we learn from this apparent environmental success story?

When Giovanni Caboto reached the Canadian island of Newfoundland in 1497, he remarked that the sea was so full of fish, they could be caught by simply lowering a basket into the water. The most abundant of the Grand Banks’ sea life was the cod, a large, versatile fish which has fed the world for thousands of years.

As technology advanced in the twentieth century and foreign trawlers caught thousands of fish at a time, the supplies rapidly began to fall. By 1994, a report estimated that the cod population at Grand Banks was just 1% of its level in the 1960s. The Canadian government was forced to ban commercial fishing in the area, and tens of thousands in the fishing industry were put out of work.

This was not the only story of its kind. In 2003, cod fisheries in the North Sea appeared on the brink of collapse, and the EU set strict quotas on how much fishing was allowed there.

Now, however, the cod population is on the rise and cod is no longer “endangered”. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) said it could now be sold with its “blue tick” label, indicating that North Sea cod caught by British boats is “sustainable and fully traceable”.

This follows a recommendation in 2015 from the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), which recommended an increase in North Sea fishing levels for the first time since 2000, as the stock finally rose above “danger levels”.

“There’s no mystery,” say experts. “Fishers stopped killing so many cod, and the population recovered.” This may have been helped by evolutionary changes to the cod’s reproductive cycle, but the overall message is simple: government restrictions worked.

Lovers of seafood will be delighted to hear that this popular fish is on its way to becoming a sustainable option once more. The Marine Conservation Society (MCS), having given a seal of approval to cod caught responsibly in Alaska, the Arctic and the Baltic, can now add the North Sea to that list.

Cod only knows

For many environmentalists, this is a refreshing success story. Conditions for cod fisheries looked dire, but there was a remarkably simple solution — stop fishing so much, and the population will rise again. We should remember this when dealing with other environmental concerns. If things are bad, we don’t have to despair: humans can help by changing their behaviour. It’s as simple as that.

Others are more sceptical. This only happened because when stocks got dangerously low, governments stepped in. There was no other option but extinction, and thousands of workers lost their livelihoods in the process. It is policy-makers who hold the true power over environmental issues, and the solutions may not be easy.

You Decide

  1. What is the most important lesson to be learnt from the North Sea cod fisheries?
  2. Is industrial fishing immoral?


  1. Design a recipe for a sustainable seafood meal, using the guide from the Marine Conservation Society as a starting point. You will find it under Become An Expert.
  2. Choose an endangered sea creature and create a presentation explaining its history and why you think it should be saved.

Some People Say...

“It’s okay to eat fish ‘cause they don’t have any feelings.”

Kurt Cobain (probably meant ironically)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
North Sea cod had been considered under threat for a decade after a dramatic fall in stocks in 2006. Now, after years of restrictions on fishing, their numbers are back up again. The Marine Stewardship Council believes that cod is now “sustainable and fully traceable”. However, according to the World Wildlife Fund, the population of cod remains low compared to much of history.
What do we not know?
There is a danger that cod fishing will get into a cycle: first, loads are caught, then there is a shortage, then restrictions are imposed, then numbers rise, then restrictions are lifted and numbers start to fall again. We do not know if new laws are going to be able to break this cycle.

Word Watch

Grand Banks
Found south-east of the Newfoundland island, the Grand Banks are a series of submarine plateaus. They are relatively shallow, ranging from 36 to 185m deep.
Bottom trawling is a destructive fishing technique in which vast fishing nets reach down to the ocean floor: they capture everything in their path, including the seabed’s delicate ecosystem.
North Sea
The North Sea stretches between the UK, Norway, Germany and Belgium. It contains around 200 species of fish.
Evolutionary changes
As overfishing depleted cod numbers at the end of the 20th century, the fish began reaching sexual maturity much younger. This happened faster than scientists had suspected it could, causing them to describe it as ‘turbo-evolution’.
Seal of approval
The MCS website Fish Online gives sustainability ratings from 1–5 to hundreds of fish species. It also produces a “Good Fish Guide” and a mobile app to help people choose their seafood responsibly.


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