Perhaps more than any other member of Massachusetts' rich array of natural resources, the Atlantic cod is recognized as a symbol of the Commonwealth's natural heritage. This species, so entwined in the early history of settlement of coastal Massachusetts that a model (referred to as the "Sacred Cod") hangs in the statehouse, is native to most of the North Atlantic Ocean. In the northwest Atlantic it inhabits waters from western Greenland south to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and is most abundant from the coast of northern Labrador to the Nantucket Shoals region off Massachusetts.
Cod are easily distinguished from most other marine fish by their three rounded dorsal fins and two anal fins that are mirror images of the second and third dorsals. They also have a prominent barbell ("whisker") on the chin.
Cod lack the large dark blotch on the side that is characteristic of the closely related haddock. The square or indented outline of the cod's tail differs from the rounded tail of the tomcod. The cod also lacks the slender, elongate extensions of the pelvic fins characteristic of the tomcod.
Individuals vary widely in color. Most cod are grayish green to reddish brown of their backs and sides, and white on their bellies. They are speckled on the upper portion of their bodies, the sides of their heads, and their fins and tails. The lateral line, a series of pores that allows fish to detect disturbances in the water, is conspicuously lighter than the dark sides of the body.
Cod occasionally reach lengths in excess of 5 to 6 feet. The heaviest fish on record, caught off the Massachusetts coast by a commercial vessel, weighed over 200 pounds. The Massachusetts angling record was set by a fish weighing 85 pounds 10 ounces boated on Jefferys Ledge in 1984. In recent years, harvested cod very rarely weigh more than 100 pounds, with 50-60 pound fish normally the largest sizes taken. Offshore cod tend to be larger than inshore ones, the former frequently reaching sizes of 25 pounds and 40 to 42 inches in length while the latter usually weigh 6 to 12 pounds and measure 27 to 34 inches in length. One-year-old fish are typically 7 to 12, 2-year-olds 14 to 17 and 3-year-olds 19 to 22 inches length.
Both sexes usually reproduce for the first time when 5 or 6 year old. The fecundity (number of eggs produced in a given year) of females increases with age and size. A 40-inch female may lay about 3 million eggs and a 50-inch female up to 9 million eggs in one spawning season.
Atlantic cod live in a variety of habitats but generally are found in depths of 200 to 360 feet with temperatures ranging from 34 to 46 degrees F in the summer, and depths of 295 to 440 feet with temperatures of 36 to 39 degrees F in the winter. They seldom are found deeper than 660 feet.
Cod undergo seasonal migrations in the more northerly and southerly reaches of their range in the northwest Atlantic. Those fish inhabiting polar waters in the summer and autumn migrate to more southerly and deeper waters in winter and spring, while fish summering in the Nantucket Shoals region overwinter along the New Jersey coast. Fish inhabiting the region between coastal Nova Scotia and Cape Cod do not exhibit predictable seasonal migrations. Some move considerable distances in search of food or in response to overcrowding at certain spawning grounds, but generally adults in our region remain within limited areas of uniform physical conditions. Cod do not swim about in large schools, but they do travel in small groups when searching for food.
The cod is a winter spawner. It reproduces from November to December along the coast of southern New England. Spawning takes place at depths of 3 to 350 feet, with the greatest activity occurring in about 200 feet of water. Adults inhabiting inshore areas generally move offshore to reproduce.
Larvae measuring about 0.2 inches hatch from 10 to 40 days after spawning, depending upon water temperatures. The larvae inhabit the open water column feeding upon microscopic copepods for 2 to 3 months after hatching. Then they move to the bottom where they die and feed among rocks and algae until they are large enough to swim away from predators.
The smaller bottom-dwelling cod feed mainly upon small crustaceans such as shrimp and amphipods. Adults will eat almost anything small enough to fit into their mouths, including clams, cockles, mussels, and other mollusks, as well as crabs, lobsters, and sea urchins. Adults also pursue schooling fish, eating substantial numbers of herring, capelin, shad, mackerel, silver hake, young haddock, and other species. Voraciously pursuing a variety of potential foods, cod will occasionally dine upon some very exotic items: ducks, shoes, jewelry, and rope have been found in the stomachs of captured cod.
Young cod are eaten by many species of fish, including pollock and larger cod. Once juvenile cod grow to about 8 inches, they can effectively swim away from many of their potential predators. Adult Cod occasionally fall prey to spiny dogfish and sharks.
The cod has been an extremely valuable resource for several centuries in Massachusetts. Its extensive use as a food dates back to the earliest period of European settlement in coastal New England. In colonial times, it was deemed so important that in 1693 the General Court of the Massachusetts Nay Colony ordered that farmers could no longer use cod as fertilizer. This action was one of the first recorded attempts at natural resource conservation and management on this continent.
Although one of the earliest fisheries resources to be broadly utilized after European settlement in New England, cod populations along the US coast proved to be very resilient. Cod apparently withstood more than 3 centuries of harvest without displaying major, long-term regulations in abundance. However, mid-twentieth century advances in fishing technology and the introduction into the northwest Atlantic of distant-water foreign fishing fleets during the late 1950's led to a period of reduced abundance and major annual fluctuations in population size. During the mid-1980s commercial vessels captured mostly 3 to 5 year old fish, indication that few larger, older individuals remain along the North American coast.
Recreational harvest constitutes a modest portion of the total cod landed. From 1979 to 1984, recreational harvest averaged about 13% of the total cod harvest in the Gulf of Maine and about 10% on George's Bank and areas to the south.
Cod harvest in the Fishery Conservation Zone (FCZ: 3 miles to 200 miles from the shoreline) falls under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan of the New England Fisheries Management Council. Regulations under this plan include minimum legal size regulations for commercial and recreational harvest (17 inches for the latter), area closures, and mesh size regulations for commercial trawl nets. In Massachusetts territorial waters, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries has established minimum legal size limits (23 inches for recreational fishing and 22 inches for commercial fishing for 2002) to protect the spawning potential of cod populations.
Many anglers fish for cod on offshore grounds in private or party boats. A 7 ½ to 9-foot medium to stiff rod with a conventional 4/0 reel is required when pursuing this species offshore. The reel should be spooled with 50-pound test dacron line. Many of the most successful anglers use jigs with teasers. Ten to 20 ounce Vike or Norwegian-style jigs are popular; some anglers prefer to replace the treble hook on such lures with a 10/0 or larger hook that has a red surge tube over the shank. Jigs should be tied to a monofilament leader fastened to the rod's line by a black swivel. Attaching a red, green, black, or white tube teaser worm on a large 8/0 hook to swivel completes the lure. Such a rigging resembles a large fish chasing smaller bait fish, and effect that causes many fish to strike at the teaser being "chased" by the jig.
Although jigs produce big fish, bait also brings good luck to the angler. When rigging for bait, attach a 10 to 20 ounce sinker to a 3-way swivel using line that is lighter than that on the reel: if the sinker snags the bottom, all of the rig except the sinker can be recovered. Eighteen inches of 80-pound test monofilament with one or two 4/0 or 5/0 snelled Sproat hooks tied along its length should be attached to the second swivel leg. A commercial "Scotsman" or double-hook cod rig can be substituted for the homemade rig. Sand eels, mackerel, strips of herring and other fish, or crabs can be used as bait. However, a large piece of clam with its entrails trailing from the hook is the favored bait of many anglers. Clam hunks should be replaced when they turn pale.
In the early spring as water temperatures are beginning to rise, cod can be fished along the shoreline during early morning or from late evening until night. Typical gear includes a rod and reel with 15 to 20 pound test line rigged with a 2 ounce or larger pyramid sinker on a fish finder. Sea Worms, or clams on a 3/0 hooks are used as bait.
Cod should be iced after capture to retain their delicate flavor; if they are iced in a large cooler, the melt water should be drained occasionally so the fish do not soak in warming water.
The white, flaky meat of cod has traditionally been Massachusetts' equivalent to "a chicken in every pot." This flavorful fish can be baked, boiled/poached, fried, made into cakes or chowder, or salted for long-term storage without loss of flavor or nutrition. The roe (eggs), tongues, and especially cheeks are considered delicacies by many. Poaching is nearly universally enjoyed as a method of cooking this species. To poach, add cod fillets or steaks and slices of lemon to rapidly boiling, lightly salted water. When the water resumes boiling, remove the pot from the stove and let it stand for 5 to 10 minutes until the meat flakes. Drain and cover with a sauce or add melted butter or margarine. For an excellent baked dish, stuff a cod with "hot" breakfast sausage roll mixed with Italian-flavored breadcrumbs or mashed potatoes. Bake at 350 degrees until the cod flakes.
There are no commercial fishery reporting requirements to the Division of Marine Fisheries for cod & haddock, except through specific gear related catch reports such as those required to be completed by fishermen fishing gillnets. Federal permit holders may have to comply with federal reporting requirements.
Seafood dealers who wish to purchase cod directly from fishermen must hold a valid Massachusetts seafood dealer permit as well as submit a primary buyer and quota managed species application to the Division of Marine Fisheries. Buying cod directly from fishermen without prior authorization is strictly prohibited. Once a dealer becomes a primary buyer, there are reporting requirements that must be met.