Cod crisis – North Sea cod numbers fall to critically low levels

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 28 June 2019

Emergency measures must be put in place to secure the future of North Sea cod, following today’s announcement by marine scientists that species numbers have fallen to a critically low level.

Juvenile cod
© Paul Naylor

It’s a very harsh lesson, but this is why we need to implement legally binding commitments to fish at sustainable levels

Samuel Stone,
MCS Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture

MCS, WWF and ClientEarth have written a joint letter to Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Scottish Government to demand urgent steps are taken to ensure the recovery of this important cod population.

The scientific assessment of the North Sea cod stock levels was released today (June 28th) by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES). It indicates that cod stock has fallen to a dangerously low level, throwing the future of the North Sea fishery into doubt. ICES is recommending that the quota for cod fishing be reduced by 70% in a drastic effort to protect and restore the population of this iconic North Sea fish.

The dramatic decline of cod is symptomatic of the overall nature crisis in the UK, which is now one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.

Cod is an ecologically and commercially important species in the North Sea, and According to ocean advocacy group, Oceana, is fished mainly by the Scottish and English fishing fleets. The group says its population peaked in the North Sea at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s but plummeted to just 44,000 tonnes back in 2006.

Samuel Stone, Head of Fisheries and Aquaculture, at MCS, said that failures to reduce fishing pressure have led to serious overfishing and a reversal in fortunes for cod, when the fishery had been on the road to recovery: “It’s a very harsh lesson, but this is why we need to implement legally binding commitments to fish at sustainable levels, to effectively monitor our fisheries and to take an ecosystem based approach to fisheries management. We have to properly protect our fish stocks for the benefit of our seas, coastal communities and consumers who expect sustainable seafood.”

Helen McLachlan, Fisheries Programme Manager, at WWF, said: “Cod play a crucial role in maintaining healthy oceans. This is a real crisis for our seas and fixing it will require an emergency response from governments. Ministers must listen to scientific advice and take immediate steps to address the dangers of overfishing and poor management of the discard ban on dwindling cod stocks.

“We can’t be credible global leaders in the fight to restore nature if we don’t protect our natural resources here at home. If we are to prevent the collapse of this vital fishery, governments must take action. Failure to act will undermine the health of our precious marine environment and the future of those communities who depend on it for a living.”

ClientEarth, MCS and WWF are calling on UK governments to take emergency action, working with those jointly responsible for fisheries management, to deliver the key measures needed to bring about the recovery of this important fish stock with an emergency plan which identifies a concrete pathway to recovery including:

Of all the North Sea border countries, the UK receives the largest share of cod - UK fisheries receive roughly 40% of the available quota annually, alongside others including Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Germany, which receive less.

However, North Sea cod has been fished at levels above the Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) each year since the introduction of MSY advice in 2013, meaning the stock has never truly had a chance to adequately recover.

Tom West, UK Environment Lawyer, at ClientEarth, said: “The scientists have spoken: North Sea cod is in serious trouble and could collapse without urgent intervention from government. Following scientific advice will be vital in reversing this crisis for the North Sea ecosystem and the communities that rely on it – because no more cod in the sea means no more cod on dinner plates. The UK government made a big deal of how Brexit was about taking back control of our waters – now is the time for our leaders to show us they mean business and protect this iconic fish much loved by the British public.”

WWF, ClientEarth and MCS are campaigning for the new Fisheries Bills to include clear commitments to set catch limits at or below scientifically recommended levels. They’re also calling for accountability with robust monitoring and enforcement of sustainable fishing quotas using on-board cameras and sensors. At present it is estimated that less than 1% of fishing activity at sea is monitored and this needs to change.

Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group, said: “The latest Ices advice on North Sea cod is a hammer blow to an industry that has been instrumental over the past decade in rebuilding this stock to the point where Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation was achieved two years ago.

“The primary cause of this twist of fortune, the scientists tell us, is related to climate change and regime shift, which may be having a real and very significant negative impact on the essential elements that lead to good recruitment.

“That means that the situation is not fully within our control, however the industry remains 100% committed to sustainable catching and is united in its desire to do what it takes to rebuild the cod stock.”

Actions you can take

Did you know?…

21.7 million tonnes of wild caught fish are not for people to eat; almost 75% of this is to feed farmed fish

The ocean sustains livelihoods and provides food for millions of people

In the UK we eat 486,000 tonnes of seafood a year, which is 8.2kg per person

What's your impact on our seas?

You can play a key role in securing the future of our seas and marine wildlife by making more environmentally responsible choices when buying seafood.

Make the right choice and reduce your impact - every purchase matters!

See our top tips