Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
North American Atlantic cod populations are found from North Carolina all the way north to Baffin Island.

Did you know?

One of the largest recorded Atlantic cod was 96 kilograms and 180 centimetres long.

Scientific name: Gadus morhua
Average weight: 2 – 3 kg
Average length: 60 – 100 cm long
Average lifespan: 20 years or more (but wide variation)
An Atlantic cod clearly displaying its barbel.

Our changing understanding

Within two years, two articles about Atlantic cod in Canadian Geographic captured a change in tone from hopeful to fearful.

The first, from June/July 1988, states: “Cod may at last provide the steady prosperity that has eluded Canada’s oldest communities for so long.” In April/May 1990, the same author writes, “After a few rich seasons, the East Coast fishery is in deep trouble again.” What changed? 

Prior to 1988, Atlantic cod was rarely mentioned in the magazine. One of the first articles, in May 1966, simply chronicled giant versions of cod found in a lake on Baffin Island. Since 1988, however, stories appear more frequently and reflect our growing knowledge of the once abundant fish.

Several things were becoming clear: the vessels used to catch cod had become too efficient and led to more stock being taken than could replenish itself. Scientists also realized that their earlier population estimates were far off. Quotas were drastically reduced, and in 1992, a moratorium on cod was imposed, and the Atlantic fishing economy took a nose-dive.

Stories in the mid-1990s explored the possibility that colder temperatures in the North Atlantic Ocean were lowering cod reproduction rates and altering the cod’s distribution. Near the end of the century, the Atlantic cod was declared a vulnerable species by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). In 1997, however, the year before COSEWIC’s designation, the federal government had partially opened the cod fishery in certain areas.

In less than half a century Atlantic cod has gone from practically jumping onto people’s plates to being a carefully selected catch available only at certain times of the year. And much more remains to be learned about its behaviour and ecology.