North Sea cod is off the menu at local fish and chip shops after stocks halved in just two years.
The Marine Stewardship Council today warns consumers to instead choose pollock, hake or whiting after an alarming drop in numbers.
It was thought that cod stocks in British waters were in good health, but new advice from the MSC, which sets international standards for sustainable fishing, casts a different picture entirely.
Just two years ago, marine conservationists hailed the return of cod to the North Sea when reports suggested there were 152,000 tonnes in the region, the highest since 1982.
It followed an extensive recovery plan set up more than a decade earlier by Governments in Scotland and England, when numbers were at a record low of 44,000 tonnes.
Forecasts suggested that stocks would hit 180,000 tonnes this year, but in a report today by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, the world’s oldest intergovernmental science organisation, says the actual figure is just over 81,000 tonnes.
It prompted the MSC to remove its sustainability badge from North Sea cod, which is handed out to fisheries with healthy stocks. It means it can no longer be ordered by diners guilt-free.
The fishing industry has now vowed to work collectively to recover the stock over the next five years.
It is not clear what is fuelling the declines, although experts suggest it could be the result of factors such as warming waters driven by climate change and fewer young cod surviving into adulthood in the past two years.
Erin Priddle, UK and Ireland programme director for the Marine Stewardship Council, said: “The decline in the North Sea cod stock is a worrying development, with the latest stock models suggesting that the fishery has not recovered as well as previously thought.”
She said the latest scientific advice meant the North Sea cod fishery no longer met the MSC standard.
She added: “While this news is devastating for industry, it is a testament to the MSC standard working as it should: to pick up on threats to stock sustainability, as is the case with North Sea cod.
“It is imperative that industry works collaboratively with fishery managers, non-governmental organisations and the wider seafood supply chain to introduce effective measures that will see this fishery once again achieve certification.”
Mike Park, chairman of the Scottish Fisheries Sustainable Accreditation Group said: “The industry are concerned that, notwithstanding their best efforts to continue to rebuild North Sea cod, some developments are taking place that seem beyond their control.
“That said, they are committed to introducing balanced and proportionate measures in an attempt to reverse the decline.”
Any cod caught from the date of suspension on October 24 will not be able to carry the sustainability label.