The Atlantic cod´s tale

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) is an iconic fish species world-wide. How did such a fish become THE FISH? And, in the future, will we still be able to have cod on our table as Christmas delicacy?

Figure 1: Typical cod dish from Venice (Northern Italy): “baccala´mantecato alla veneziana” (picture by Gabriele Boscolo).

Christmas trees are fully decorated, candles are lit and Christmas songs resonate all over towns. Soon it will be time for the celebrations on Christmas days, and families are already planning the different delicacies to eat during the traditional lunches and dinners. Around the North Atlantic, no matter where you come from, one delicacy has been served for centuries and is a must for Christmas: I am talking about a white flesh fish, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). The typical dish in Norway or Sweden is the Lutfisk, in Portugal the Bacalhau de consolada, in Canada salted cod, in Italy, depending on the region Baccala´ mantecato alla veneziana (Fig.1), Baccala´fritto etc., but cod is something that can´t really be lacking on the table. How has cod become such an important species, not only in the North Atlantic where it is fished, but everywhere in the world (Fig.2)? And will we still find cod on our tables in the future? 

Figure 2: Map of Atlantic cod distribution (

The cod´s tale starts centuries ago1. First evidences of cod fisheries are documented already in the Middle Ages2. Cod is a white flesh fish with virtually no fat that was easy to preserve under salt also for weeks and therefore could be eaten during long fishing expedition (e.g. during the Basque expedition to hunt for whales). Due to the nutritional properties and the conservation methods, an international market for cod was soon established. Cod was caught in particular by northern countries (Scandinavia and UK), and by Spanish, Portuguese and Basque fleets which fished far away from their coastal waters. In the Northern countries cod was dried to preserve the fish, but the bigger share of the product was sold in the Mediterranean regions where it was salted (the salt was particularly abundant there and the fish tasted better with this conservation technique). In this way, a fish distributed in the North Atlantic, started to become famous all over the world. In the 15th century a lot of commercial interests rotated around cod. The arrival of Giovanni Caboto in Canada in 1497, opened to completely new possibilities for the cod fisheries. A sentence reported by an Italian church man suggested that Caboto, once arrived in Newfoundland, said “the sea there is swarming with fish which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone”. While European stocks already started to be depleted, Canadian and USA stocks where almost untouched and therefore more and more European fleets started to cross the North Atlantic in order to catch more fish. In 1550 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod and this dominance lasted for other 200 years. Cod started also to be traded along the slaves’ routes in West Africa and South America; in this way, cod market started to embrace the world and cod became the best-known species worldwide. At this time, cod fisheries seemed inexhaustible. The troubles started around the beginning of the 20th century. 

Figure 3: cod fishing (picture by Steffen Funk)

After the industrial revolution fishing techniques started to become more and more efficient3. Sail trawlers were replaced by steam and then motor trawlers that could go further away from the coast. New gears started to be developed (beam trawls) and old gears were made more efficient (long-lines). New devices started to be used to catch more fish, e.g. sonars, and new conservation methods permit the boats to stay longer at sea and still be able to sell their products. All these innovations masked the suffering of cod stocks; apparently still a lot of cod was caught and nobody really noticed that in reality the stocks were strongly declining. Some reports arrived from small-scale coastal fishermen in Canada who claimed that they couldn´t catch any cod because the big trawlers were catching everything far out from the coast. The scientific community was also confused about the status of the stocks: it was believed that, since the fish were able to produce many eggs and potential larvae, humans would never be able to make a stock collapse, and if stocks were declining, overexploitation was not the main cause. These beliefs started to sway around half of the century and were contradicted in the 1980s/1990s: almost synchronously many cod stocks of the North Atlantic, both in the west and the east, collapsed, leaving thousands of people without job, e.g. in Newfoundland 40000 fishermen lost their job4. The causes of these collapses are still debated, but it seems they were due to a combination of unsustainable fishing pressure and unfavourable climatic conditions. After these collapses and the strong declines many management measures started to be adopted that ranged from a simple reduction of the fishing effort to fishing moratoria. Nevertheless, after more than 20 years since their implementation, it is not clear whether cod stocks have recovered or not. Just one stock, the North-East Arctic cod, closed to the Barents Sea, has clearly increased to unprecedented levels and is fulfilling almost the entire market demand.

The collapse of such an iconic species has brought many losses from the social and economic perspective in different areas of the North Atlantic. The demand for cod products is still high and will likely continue to be so due to the importance of this species (Fig.3). During my PhD project, I will try to study the recovery of cod looking at biological, fishing and economic data. In particular, I will try to understand the recovery potential of cod in different areas, under stressors such as climate change. Will cod still be present on our tables and in our Christmas dinners? Stay tuned…   


Do you know that…

In Italy, Spain and Portugal a word for fresh cod does not exist. There are multiple words to describe different types of cod products, e.g. dried or salted (in Italian the former “stoccafisso” the latter “baccala´”), but not a specific word to describe the fish (in Italian “merluzzo” is used for cod but it doesn´t refer to the species Gadus morhua but more to the family gadidae)1.



1Mark Kurlansky, (1997). Cod: a biography of the fish that changed the world. Penguin Books, London, ISBN-10:0140275010

2Barrett J, Johnostone C, Harland J et al., (2008) Detecting the medieval cod trade: a new method and first results. Journal of Archaeological Science 35, 850-861

3Engelhard, G. H. (2008) One Hundred and Twenty Years of Change in Fishing Power of English North Sea Trawlers, in Advances in Fisheries Science: 50 years on from Beverton and Holt (eds A. Payne, J. Cotter and T. Potter), Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781444302653.ch1

4Myers RA, Hutchings JA, Barrowman NJ (1996). Hypotheses for the decline of cod in the North Atlantic. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 138, 293-308.



Tags: fishing, Atlantic cod, history By Camilla Sguotti, edited by Leonie Färber and Esther Schuch
Published Dec. 11, 2017 5:39 PM - Last modified Dec. 11, 2017 5:39 PM