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North Sea Cod To Lose Sustainability Certification: MSC

By Dayeeta Das
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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificates for North Sea cod fisheries will be suspended after stocks dropped below the safe biological level. 

The suspension affects all MSC-certified fisheries targeting the North Sea cod stock. 

The latest scientific advice changes the perception of the North Sea cod stock – previously thought to be in good health. 

The causes of the decline are unclear. However, scientists suggest it may be a result of factors such as warming waters – driven by climate change – and fewer young cod surviving into adulthood in the past two years. 

This decline has occurred despite industry initiatives to actively avoid catching juvenile fish - critical in the reproduction cycle - and monitoring the overall health of the stock. 


It has been achieved primarily through improving fishing selectivity and avoiding spawning grounds, features that were instrumental in the fishery attaining MSC-certification back in 2017.

'A Worrying Development'

Erin Priddle, programme director for the Marine Stewardship Council in UK and Ireland, explained, "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.

"The MSC programme was established to recognise and reward sustainable fisheries and is designed to identify when certified fisheries are not performing as they should against our Standard. The independent auditors have now examined the latest advice and concluded that this drop in the stock – below the safe biological level – coupled with a recommended sharp cut to quotas and management shortfalls means that the North Sea cod fishery no longer meets the MSC Standard.

"While this news is devastating for industry, it is a testament to the MSC Standard working as it should: to pick up on threats to stock sustainability, as is the case with North Sea cod. The [industry must work in collaboration] with fishery managers, NGOs, and the wider seafood supply chain to introduce effective measures that will see this fishery once again achieve certification. Now, more than ever, we need coordination and cooperation for the sustainability of our oceans and the marine life within," Priddle added.


Strong Industry Response

The Scottish fishing industry has committed to a five-year project, known as a Fishery Improvement Project, to return the stock to health.

Mike Park, chairman of the SFSAG, said, "The industry is concerned that notwithstanding their best efforts to continue to rebuild North Sea cod some developments are taking place that seem beyond their control. That said, they are committed to introducing balanced and proportionate measures in an attempt to reverse the decline. We will be liaising closely with managers to ensure that these measures apply to all vessels operating within the mixed demersal fishery."

Impact On UK Cod Supplies

The UK consumes 115,000 tonnes of cod each year, 37% of which carries the blue MSC label. 

About 94% cod in the UK is imported, including other sustainable MSC-certified options originating from stocks outside the North Sea such as Iceland, Norway, and Russia. Cod is sourced from a wide range of MSC-certified sustainable fisheries. 


Shoppers and diners can continue to choose MSC-labeled cod with a clean conscience by looking for the blue MSC label.  Cod with this label can be purchased with the knowledge that it is sustainable and can be traced back to the source.

North Sea Cod: A History Of Highs And Lows

Today’s announcement is the latest news in a mixed history for the North Sea cod fishery.

Cod stocks in the North Sea peaked at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s, when this iconic fish was widely sold and enjoyed. However, the stock fell to just 44,000 tonnes in 2006.

The industry worked closely with the Scottish and UK Governments to implement a suite of measures – known as the ‘Cod Recovery Plan’ – designed to help nurse the stock back to health.


The plan linked conservation measures to the number of days that fishing boats were given. The plan aimed to reduce cod catches by 25% in 2009, followed by subsequent annual reductions of 10%. 

In response, the Scottish industry closed large spawning areas to fishing, trialled new nets and a system of remote electronic monitoring using CCTV cameras onboard boats.

In 2017, the fishery was MSC-certified with the stock reaching 152,207 tonnes, the highest since 1982. Moreover, stocks were forecast to hit 180,990 in 2018, the highest since 1975.

Unfortunately, the 2018 ICES advice included a far smaller stock estimate, a trend that has continued with the latest advice showing a stock of only 81,224 tonnes, below the safe biological level, putting it in increased danger of collapse.

The fishing industry will now work collectively to recover the stock over the next five years.

Impact of Climate Change

On Wednesday, 25th September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a landmark report on climate change and our oceans. 

The report adds to the mounting evidence of the impact of climate change on the distribution and health of fish stocks. 

To adapt to climate change, progress towards sustainable fisheries management is more urgent than ever before.

'Significant Challenges'

Priddle commented, "The seas are a dynamic and ever-changing ecosystem. However, changes in the marine environment are accelerating under climate-related impacts and will continue to present significant challenges for achieving sustainable fisheries unless we can find ways to adapt management and fishing practices to ensure fishing can be carried out sustainably.

"Going forward, it will be critical to deepening our understanding of warming seas on fisheries, as well as improving the science and monitoring needed to ensure the future sustainability of fisheries across the globe. For North Sea cod, we look forward to seeing improvements in science and monitoring, and working with the fishing sector as they develop their plans to restore this ecologically and culturally valuable stock," he added.

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