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Species information

Atlantic cod

The Atlantic cod is a marine species found on the continental shelves of both the Northwest and Northeast Atlantic Ocean. It has the characteristic gadoid shape that includes three dorsal and two anal fins with coloration that varies throughout its range from near-black, to brown to red. The flesh is firm and white making it an ideal species for drying and/or salting. In general, size at maturity for cod ranges from 45 to 55cm although in recent years, smaller mature individuals have been observed specifically on the Eastern Scotian Shelf.

In Canadian waters, cod range from Georges Bank to Newfoundland and Labrador and North to the waters off Baffin Island. They are also found adjacent to Canadian waters on the northeast and southeast tips of the Grand Banks and on Flemish Cap.

Atlantic cod is a batch spawner, releasing eggs at various times over a 3 to 6 week period. During their juvenile stage, cod require a diverse habitat that includes vertical structures like eel grass and corals which provide protection from predation. Habitat requirements for adult cod are not clearly understood, but temperature and food supply appear to be critical factors for distribution and abundance.

The diet of adult cod is varied; studies of stomach contents have identified fish species such as capelin, sandlance, herring, redfish and cunners along with numerous invertebrate species like squid, mussels and brittle stars. In the larval stage they feed primarily on amphipods and copepods but switch to crustaceans and euphausids as juveniles.

COSEWIC assessment

COSEWIC assessed four populations of Atlantic cod in May 2004: the Newfoundland and Labrador population, Laurentian North population, Maritimes population, and the Arctic population.  This workbook only deals with the Maritimes population of cod which has been identified by DFO for management purposes as five separate stocks: (1) Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (NAFO Division 4T), (2) Cabot Strait (NAFO Division 4Vn), (3) Eastern Scotian Shelf (NAFO Divisions 4VsW), (4) Bay of Fundy/Western Scotian Shelf (NAFO Division 4X), and (5) cod found on the Canadian portion of Georges Bank (NAFO Division 5Zej,m). COSEWIC provides the following rationale for designating the Maritimes population of cod

Special concern:

Cod in the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, across the Scotian Shelf and into the Gulf of Maine comprise a heterogeneous assemblage of stocks that are at low levels of abundance as a group. These levels are not unprecedented for the cod in the Southern Gulf, Southwest Scotian Shelf, Bay of Fundy and George's Bank, but those on the Eastern Scotian Shelf are at historic lows and have continued to decline in the absence of directed fishing. Overall, cod in the entire region have declined 14% in the past 30 years,and have demonstrated a sensitivity to human activities. Threats to persistence include directed fishing, bycatch in other fisheries, natural predation, and natural and fishing-induced changes to the ecosystem.

Threats to Cod

Exploitation in the form of directed fishing, bycatch, illegal fishing, misreporting, discarding and natural predation are all considered to be potential factors responsible for the lack of recovery of cod. Fishing pressure may also have contributed to genetic changes such as younger age at maturity and lower growth rates. These, along with natural and fishery-induced ecosystem changes, including habitat alteration, and changes in species interactions have contributed to higher mortality rates for the Maritimes population of Atlantic cod.

Protecting Cod

There are conservation measures in place to protect the Maritimes population of cod.  Stocks where biomass and production remain low, (4VsW and 4Vn May - November) have been placed under moratoria where catches are restricted to the lowest possible bycatch (i.e. less than 150 tonnes annually) For stocks not under moratoria, protection is provided through the Integrated Fisheries Management Plan (IFMP) under which annual total allowable catches (TAC’s) control the overall fishing mortality. The potential for exceeding TAC's is controlled through a Dockside Monitoring Program (DMP) and observer deployments to areas of concern.

Other conservation measures in place include limiting the size of fish that can be caught and preventing the disturbance of spawning fish through seasonal spawning area closures. For the 4T stock in particular, a year round closure is in place for the Shediac Valley which has been identified as a nursery area.

Potential Impacts on Stakeholders

Once listed in the Species at Risk Act, activities that affect the Atlantic cod or its habitat may receive more scrutiny. Automatic prohibitions do not apply to species of special concern under SARA. A SARA Management Plan will be developed and there is a range of management measures that may be implemented to conserve the Maritimes population of Atlantic cod.

These measures may lead to a variety of impacts on stakeholders, including additional costs.  The following list is not exhaustive; please use this consultation as an opportunity to list omissions.


Aboriginal peoples will be invited to participate in the development of a Management Plan for the Maritimes population of Atlantic cod.  Management strategies that could affect aboriginal people fishing for commercial species in areas inhabited by cod may be considered.

Fishing Industry

If a particular fishing activity is identified to be a threat to the survival of a listed species, management measures will be taken to address the threat.  These measures could include increased observer coverage in certain areas, closed areas, gear modifications, or other measures developed in collaboration with industry that willhelp prevent and minimize interactions.

Oil and Gas Industry

 The effects of the oil and gas industry on groundfish populations are poorly understood. Seismic testing may have a deleterious effect on demersal fish, eggs and larvae. Proposed oil and gas activities that fall under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) will be required to address the impacts on SARA listed species in accordance with this legislation.

Military Operations

Maritime Forces Atlantic may be asked to prepare guidelines for naval exercises or underwater site remediation in areas of cod habitat. They may be asked to refrain from undertaking specific types of exercises in these areas. As identified in SARA, these requirements would be waived in emergencies or if national security were affected.

Research Activity

Those wishing to carry out research on cod or in areas of their habitat may be required to comply with strict guidelines.

This may limit the types and/or durations of research permitted on cod and may lengthen the preparation time required for planning research projects.