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No More Cod in 15 Years, WWF Report Warns

Washington, D.C. -- A new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report shows that global cod catch has suffered a 70 percent drop over the last 30 years, a trend that could cause the world's cod stocks to disappear in 15 years. Despite the dramatic collapse of North American cod populations in the mid-1990's signaling damaging overfishing of the species, fishing management on the far side of the North Atlantic has not changed, causing significant long-term costs to the marine environment and to local economies.

The report reveals (PDF format, 1.2M) that the world's largest remaining cod stock, found in the Barents Sea, is now highly threatened by overfishing, illegal fishing and industrial development. According to The Barents Sea Cod -- The Last of the Large Cod Stocks, the world's cod fisheries are disappearing fast, with global catch that has declined from 3.1 million metric tons in 1970 to 950,000 metric tons in 2000.

In the North American cod fishery, the catch has declined by 90 percent since the early 1980s, while in European waters, the catch of the North Sea cod is now just 25 percent of what it was 15 years ago. The report further shows that while the Barents Sea cod stock -- managed by Russia and Norway and accounting for half of the global catch -- appears to be healthy, this may not last. The report highlights, for example, fish quotas for 2004 that are 100,000 metric tons over what is considered sustainable by scientists, and up to 100,000 metric tons of cod reported to be caught illegally every year.

"Overfishing of cod continues because fisheries policies are driven by short-term economic interests," said Scott Burns, director of WWF's Marine Conservation Program. "In several areas, like the North Sea and the Barents Sea, scientists are calling for lower fish quotas and cod fishing bans, but they are ignored, and business carries on as usual. The onus is on Russia and Norway to prevent the Barents Sea cod stock from suffering a similar fate to that of the North American cod stock which imploded in the 1990's and has not recovered yet."

WWF is calling on the Russian and Norwegian governments to immediately set stricter cod quotas, in accordance with scientists' recommendations, and to implement tighter controls of all fishing activities in the Barents Sea to reduce illegal fishing. Norway is also urged to reduce its fishing fleet capacity.

The report shows that threats to the Barents Sea cod stock are increasing with the expansion of industrial development, such as petroleum exploration and shipping activities. WWF also fears that the growing cod farming industry could result in disease transfer to wild cod or genetic interbreeding with escaped farm fish. Climate change could also add further pressure on fish stocks in the Arctic, including cod.

"To address these new threats, the Barents Sea cod stock needs to become more resistant, especially since it consists mainly of younger cod that reproduce less frequently than the older ones," said Rasmus Hansson, CEO of WWF-Norway. "Only sound management of the fishery by the Russian and Norwegian governments will ensure the long-term sustainability of the world's last large cod stock."

Notes to the editor:

  • In the entire Maritime region, cod stocks have declined by 14 percent in the past 30 years and are at historically low levels on the eastern Scotian Shelf, despite a moratorium since the mid-1990's.
  • Active fisheries exist on the western Scotian Shelf, Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, but Newfoundland and Labrador cod populations have declined by more than 99 percent since the early 1960's.
  • The Arctic populations consist of occurrences in a few coastal salt lakes and may only number in the thousands of individuals. Fishing is poorly regulated and there is considerable uncertainty as to their distribution and abundance.
  • Threats to cod include directed fishing (where allowed), bycatch in other fisheries, and natural and fishing-induced changes to the ecosystem. (Source: WWF-Canada, Robert Rangeley)