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North Sea cod certified as sustainable

Over a decade since North Sea cod stocks came close to collapse, shoppers and diners can finally buy the popular fish with a clear conscience following the announcement that Scottish and English cod boats, which are members of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group, are now MSC certified.

Thanks to the enormous efforts of a coalition of fishing organisations with support from supermarkets, seafood brands and the industry body, Seafish, North Sea cod has passed an independent assessment against the MSC’s strict standard. The news means that – subject to strict traceability requirements – North Sea cod can now be sold in supermarkets and restaurants bearing the MSC ‘blue tick’ label, indicating that it is sustainable and fully traceable.

The end of confusion

Although cod is one of the most popular fish in the UK – we eat nearly 70,000 tonnes of it each year1 - a YouGov survey carried out for the MSC found that more than one in three UK adults (35%) admitted that they don’t know if cod is sustainable or not, and whether people should (or should not) be eating it.

Almost three in ten of those surveyed (28%) said they think that cod is not sustainable and that people should actively avoid eating it where possible, but the same number (28%) said they believed the opposite: there are plentiful supplies of cod and it is a sustainable choice of fish. 

Toby Middleton, MSC Programme Director, North East Atlanticexplains: “Today’s certification marks the end of the cod confusion. If you can see the MSC label on your cod, you know that it has come from a sustainable source. By choosing fish with that label, you will be helping to protect stocks long into the future.”

North Sea cod’s long road to recovery

The announcement marks a momentous achievement for the industry. Cod stocks in the North Sea peaked at 270,000 tonnes in the 1970s, when North Sea cod was widely sold and enjoyed. However, stocks fell to just 44,000 tonnes in 2006. Since then the industry has worked with the Scottish Government and EU Fisheries Council to agree and implement a ‘Cod Recovery Plan’ that would nurse the stock back to health.

The plan linked the number of days fishing that boats were given to the conservation measures they signed up to. The plan aimed to reduce cod catches by 25 per cent in 2009, followed by subsequent annual reductions of 10 per cent. In response, the Scottish industry closed large spawning areas to fishing and introduced a system of real time closures to protect aggregations while trialling new nets and developing a system of remote electronic monitoring using CCTV cameras on board boats.

Mike Park, Chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group (SFSAG), comments: “This is a massive development for the catching sector and is a testament to the power of collective action.  The years of commitment to rebuilding North Sea cod has shown that fishermen are responsible and can be trusted to deliver stable and sustainable stocks.   The consumer can now eat home-caught cod with a clear conscience.”

Toby Middleton continues: “This is a huge accomplishment and the perfect example of what the MSC aims to achieve. Thanks to a collaborative, cross-industry effort, one of our most iconic fish has been brought back from the brink. Modified fishing gear, catch controls, well-managed fishing practices – all these steps have come together to revive a species that was in severe decline. And now shoppers and diners can play their part. By only choosing MSC certified sustainable North Sea cod, we can all help to protect this much-loved fish and ensure it’s never at risk again.”

The certification follows a huge effort by industry, processors and NGOs to bring the cod stock back to sustainable levels. 

Marcus Coleman, chief executive of Seafish, said: “This is brilliant news for both the industry and consumers, and Seafish is delighted to see North Sea cod awarded MSC certification. It is our mission to support a profitable, sustainable and socially responsible seafood industry, and this is a shining example of how industry and science can work together for a profoundly positive outcome.”

The MSC set standards for sustainable fishing and supply chain traceability. Products which pass these standards are awarded the blue MSC label which gives consumers assurance that their favourite fish is sustainably sourced and fully traceable. This certification not only enhances the reputation of North Sea cod, but helps widen the number of sustainable choices available to the British consumer, enabling them to eat more fish more often.”

Nigel Edwards, Technical and CSR Director of Icelandic Seachill who supported the assessment added: 

"Seachill are proud to have supported the assessment and we are delighted with this hugely deserved accolade for the fishermen, scientists, and fishery managers, who have worked together to secure the long term sustainability of the iconic and delicious North Sea cod. I have personally worked collaboratively from the 90's onwards with the MSC, retailers like Tesco, fish processors, and most importantly the fishermen and scientists. Our shared vision of a Sustainable North Sea has arrived.  North Sea cod now sits alongside the other sustainable MSC cod fisheries in Iceland and the Barents sea that means we can be truly confident in the future of cod."

Choosing MSC labelled seafood from fisheries, retailers, brands and restaurants guarantees sustainable fishing methods, traceable fish, and helps protect the life in our oceans for generations to come.