information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.



Mature Gadus morhua grow to approximately 120 cm in length, weighing around 12 kg, however, larger fish have been recorded. Age of maturity varies regionally but is usually between one and fifteen years. Colour is variable depending on habitat but most are spotted with white bellies. Atlantic cod are commonly found on sandy bottoms and are often mottled brown in appearance. This is a heavy and powerful fish with three dorsal and two anal fins, all slightly rounded, and either a square or rounded tail fin. The upper jaw overhangs the lower and the long chin barbel is equal to the eye in diameter. A prominent curved, white (or very pale) lateral line makes this species easy to identify.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Atlantic cod are found all around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, as far south as the Bay of Biscay and to the north Barents Sea.

Global distribution



Cod prefer cold temperate waters and can be found from the shoreline down to depths of 600 m.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • Two anal fins and three dorsal fins.
  • The upper jaw overhangs the lower jaw and there is a long chin barbel.
  • The colour varies with habitat but many have brown to red spots on back and sides.
  • Has a highly distinguishable curved, pale lateral line.

Additional information

Atlantic cod is one of the UKs most popular commercial species and as a result has been fished extensively in UK waters. They can often be found in large, dense shoals, making them an easy target for fishermen.

Atlantic cod are productive breeders. Spawning occurs between February and April when 3 to 6 million buoyant eggs are released, often forming great swarms that can be transported miles by ocean currents before hatching after 12 days. The larval stage of this species is also planktonic and will be carried by currents for up to 2 months before settling on the seabed where the Atlantic cod spend most of their life (Dipper, 2001).

Young Gadus morhua feed mainly on copepods but become increasingly dependent on fish as they age, eating the likes of herring, capelin, haddock and even other cod (Dipper, 2001; Wheeler, 1969).

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Further information sources

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This review can be cited as:

Heard, J.R. 2004. Gadus morhua Atlantic cod. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. Available from:

Last Updated: 05/11/2004