TRADE SECRETS: Cod off the menu

Days of plenty: Fishermen in the early 20th century display an abundant haul of cod © PA

Cod — one of the world’s favourite fish — has seen a drastic decline in its numbers over recent years. Do humans have a responsibility to protect the species they eat?

Atlantic gold

Fish and chips is often referred to as Britain’s ‘national dish’. But our love for cod, the fish most commonly used in this traditional meal, may have dark consequences. Stocks of Atlantic cod have been in decline for years due to overfishing. Some environmentalists see eating cod as close to a crime. While some animals thrive because humans enjoy eating them, man’s love for cod has seen the fish’s numbers decrease.

Cod is popular for several reasons: it is a big fish — typically a metre long, meaning one animal can feed more than one person. Cod’s dense, flaky flesh has a flavour which appeals to mild British and Northern European palates. It is also very healthy food — a low-calorie source of protein and nutrients; and from its liver we get Cod liver oil, an important source of vitamins A, D and E, as well as omega-3 fatty acids.

Cod has been an important commodity since Viking times: Norwegians travelled with dried cod and soon a dried cod market developed in southern Europe. The love for cod soon spread to Portugal and the Northern coast of Spain. The trade survived wars, the Black Death and many other disasters and is still an important industry in many countries. The East Coast of America thrived partly thanks to the vast cod stocks, and many cities and towns in New England are located near cod fishing grounds.

Cod do better

In 2000 cod officially became an endangered species. Stocks had been reduced to 10% of what they were in 1970. Just 25,000 tonnes of cod were caught that year compared with the 250,000 that were once the norm. The decline in numbers was put down to the failure of the EU and several fisheries ministers to heed scientific advice about the species’ plight.

Cod differs from many other fish in that its habitat tends to be quite far from the coast, making effective farming difficult. That huge numbers are caught in one go can give the impression that there is a plentiful supply of cod, meaning governments are slow to grasp the scale of the problem.

While overfishing is clearly the primary reason for this new dearth, global warming is a factor too: cod prefer cold waters, and the temperature in the North Sea, where most British cod is caught, has risen by 3ºC in the last few decades.

However in 2013 came a report that stocks had started to increase. This has been partly to do with the closure of North Sea cod fisheries by the European Union. The EU also limits the amount of cod which can be caught, leading many to complain about the ‘discards’ — the huge numbers of dead fish thrown back into the sea.

Whatever happens, we may have to wean ourselves off our love for cod slightly. Our way of life demands goods regularly, immediately and in plentiful supply, and the reality is that this is not sustainable. Initiatives to revive struggling species take a long time to have an effect, so a change in eating habits will be necessary.

In cod we trust

What can be done to save cod? ‘Stop eating it!’ cry many. There are plenty of alternatives to cod which look and taste almost the same, but are in plentiful supply. Red gurnard, lemon sole and pollock are all good examples. Haddock, the second most popular fish for fish and chips, is also more plentiful than cod, although it too is now struggling.

However, some say that responsible farming of cod is the way forward if the species is to survive. Fisheries are an important British industry and their decline has had a devastating effect on fishing ports such as Grimsby in England and Peterhead in Scotland. Fisheries have become a hot political topic, especially among parties who are against membership of the EU.

You Decide

  1. When you are buying fish, do you think about how rare it is? Should you?
  2. Is it the responsibility of governments to ensure no species becomes extinct?


  1. Research a species that is endangered or declining. Make a presentation to your class about why it is in decline, why it needs to be saved and how that could be done.
  2. Pick an environmental issue that affects your area and write a letter to a local politician urging them to take action on it.

Some People Say...

“The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, not try to defy them.”

Jamie Lerner

What do you think?

Q & A

What are the best ways to save endangered species?
Many see the main problem as the destruction of certain species’ natural habitats, due to both natural and man-made causes. Protection of these environments is crucial. There are other more elaborate ways such as giving animals fertility drugs and even attempting to clone species.
Why do we concentrate conservation efforts on so few species?
Unfortunately, the more picturesque or iconic a species, the more likely are people to try to save it. The Giant Panda is a great example of this, as are tigers in India. As cod are not particularly visually striking, their plight is not so well known.

Word Watch

Cod liver oil
A nutritional supplement that comes from the liver of cod fish. It has a positive effect on the heart, but it is not without risks: some studies have suggested that it can increase the risk of prostate cancer in men.
William Pitt the Elder, the British Prime Minister, claimed that cod was ‘British Gold’ when he criticised the Treaty of Paris which divided up the seas around North America among the Europeans.
North Sea
The North Sea’s shallow and cool waters make it ideal for Atlantic cod. Ports such as Grimsby in Britain, Bremerhaven in Germany, Esbjerg in Denmark and Bergen in Norway have thrived because of the trade in fish.
Haddock is the preferred fish of Scotland, while cod is more popular in England. It is classed as a ‘vulnerable’ species, and so is faring better than cod.


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