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Top 10 Species: Cod

Embattled species on the comeback trail

 - Photo courtesy of Icelandic USA
By Thyra Porter
August 01, 2007


Cod has become the poster fish for both what is right and wrong with the fishing industry.

From the overfishing debate to feeding a wide portion of the world's population, cod tops the menu. While strict quotas are increasing sustainability of the species, they also fuel price fluctuations.

And with more global quota cuts coming for Atlantic cod this month, industry watchers are bracing for higher prices this fall.

Cod, a member of the Gadidae family, encompasses Atlantic cod, Pacific cod, true cod and gray cod, among others. To chefs, it is known as salt cod, brandade, bacalao, fish sticks, and fish and chips.

Whatever the name, cod ( Gadus morhua ) has been the worldwide go-to catch for centuries. It is wildly popular in Hispanic cultures where salt cod is a staple and was long ago honored by Massachusetts, which named Atlantic cod the State Fish. (In tribute, a sculpture of a cod hangs in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.)

That storied history has earned cod an important place in today's food culture. From white-tablecloth restaurant to fast-food joint, cod's popularity has led to overfishing, especially in New England and Atlantic Canada.

Once so plentiful that boats pulling into harbors in Newfoundland had to plow through schools of codfish, stocks became so depleted during the 1980s that the entire fishing fleet in Canada was shut down.

Overfishing led to government-enforced quotas worldwide designed to rebuild cod stocks, and those quotas continue to dictate pricing more than any other factor, says Roger Riggs, director of commodity sales for Icelandic USA in Newport News, Va.

Riggs notes that a 30 percent cut in the Atlantic cod quota for the 2007-08 season by the Icelandic government points to unsettled prices this fall.

"That's a 120-million-pound shortfall, and the price increases are going to spill over and affect price and demand of Pacific cod as well, and other whitefish species like haddock," he says.

Cathy Dupuis, product marketing manager for American Seafoods Group in Seattle, who buys H&G Pacific cod for 
the industrial market, agrees with Riggs.

While she says both inventory and prices have been stable this spring, "cutbacks in quotas for Atlantic cod will mean buyers would have to make up shortfalls with Pacific cod" going forward, Dupuis says. "Any shortened fishing season makes for more competition."

"While high prices have softened temporarily, they are here to stay because there are not enough resources to meet the demand," Dupuis says.

And despite the expected increases, prices have been falling recently for fresh cod, according to Ronald Kaplan, VP of Ocean Fresh Seafood in North Attleboro, Mass., a supplier of fresh New England, Alaska and Icelandic cod to both foodservice and retail customers.

After a period of stability, Kaplan says prices spiked for the fresh catch last winter. However, he adds that prices are 
now sinking.

"Today we are buying in the low-$4 range and selling in the high-$4 range," Kaplan says, noting that prices are down from the $6-to-$7 per-pound range recorded last winter.

"Prices were tighter then because of the weather. If the fishermen are out there and it's blowing bad, they can't pull the lines," he says.

"Now that the weather has improved and more fish are being brought down from Canada, prices have dropped."

Further complicating matters, as consumers adopt a "green" outlook, overfishing has also landed Atlantic cod on environmental watch lists, like the "Eco Worst" list posted on the Internet by the watchdog group Oceans Alive and the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch list, where Atlantic cod garners an "avoid" rating.

Despite the pressure from quotas and the sustainability movement, cod remains the eighth most popular fish in the United States, and has held that position for the past three years, according to the National Fisheries Institute in McLean, Va.

Overall, U.S. consumers ate 16.5 pounds of fish per person in 2006, up from 16.2 pounds in 2005. Americans consumed between 0.5 and 0.6 pounds of cod per capita annually for the past three years, the NFI reports. Most U.S.-consumed cod is imported from Norway, Russia, Iceland and Canada.

Cod, with its firm, white flesh, follows other mild-tasting fish on the NFI list of the most-consumed seafood species in 2006.

While in earlier days cod was the most popular whitefish in the country, it's got competition. Cod placed behind tilapia, another mild-tasting whitefish, which moved up to the No. 5 position, replacing catfish, which fell to sixth on the list.

Despite concerns from environmentalists, cod remains among the most ordered fish on the Legal Sea Foods menu, says Bill Holler, VP of purchasing and operations for the Boston-based restaurant chain.

On a recent menu, baked Boston scrod was topped with breadcrumbs and tomatoes; cod was also part of a fried sea-
food platter.

"There is no question as to cod's popularity," Holler says. "In the Northeast, cod will never go away."

He adds that the cod is on the menu at all 33 Legal Sea Foods locations, from Massachusetts to Florida. "Everyone asks for it in our restaurants," he says.

Legal buys fresh Atlantic cod daily at auctions and directly from fishing boats. And, despite the price fluctuations that come with quotas, Legal Sea Foods supports sustainability.

"We think cod was overfished but now it is one of the most heavily regulated fishing industries in the world," he says. That means Holler is comfortable putting cod on the menu year-round.

"With regulations, days-at-sea programs and harvest levels fixed by the government, fishermen can't even catch as much as they are allowed to catch," he says. "I am confident that cod is sustainable and recovering."

Find other SeaFood Business articles with cod here.

Thyra Porter is a freelance writer in Cape Elizabeth, Maine


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