What Percent of a Whole Atlantic Cod Is Edible?

Updated on January 3, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

A proud angler holds his newly caught cod fish.
A proud angler holds his newly caught cod fish. | Source

How Much of the Whole Fish Can You Eat?

If you’ve ever bought a whole fish from the slab at a fishmonger or even caught and gutted your own, you’ll be amazed by how little flesh there is at the end of the filleting and gutting process.

You may have noticed that the price per pound of a whole fish is much cheaper than buying a fish that's already filleted. The reason for this is that a considerable proportion of the fish is discarded. The discarded parts consist of the bones, head, tail, intestines, scales, and gills. These can be used to make fish soup, although many people do not take the time and trouble to do this.

Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer. Cleaning and filleting the day's catch at the fish-market.
Painting by Joachim Beuckelaer. Cleaning and filleting the day's catch at the fish-market. | Source

Percentage Weight Discarded on Atlantic Cod Fish

The Atlantic Cod fish is prized because its firm flesh has a meaty texture and mild taste. The flakes of its flesh remain intact and do not disintegrate when cooked.

My local fishmonger estimates that the amount of edible flesh on an average sized Atlantic Cod is around 50% of its original weight. This tallies with the view of Aliza Green, American chef and author, who writes in her book “The Fishmonger’s Apprentice” that between 45% and 50% of the caught weight of fish is edible flesh.

This percentage varies with the species of fish and the size and age of the fish when it was caught. The remaining 50% to 55% is made up of the intestines and scales (which are normally discarded) and the head, tail, bones and gills which can be boiled to make fish broth.

Sonny Elliott of Rockanore Fisheries, UK was quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying that half the weight of each landed catch is thrown away. "If we're filleting 100kg of cod, nearly 50kg of heads, guts and bones ends up going to landfill," he said. "Occasionally people ask for bones to make stock, but mostly they just want flesh."

The video below shows a whole cod being eviscerated and filleted on a commercial fishing boat.

Filleting Cod Fish at Sea

Commercial Fishing and Atlantic Cod (Gadus Morhua)

The Atlantic Cod (Gadus Morhua) is a favorite with cooks across Europe and America. The species used to be plentiful in the 1970s and 1980s. It was found in large numbers off the coasts of northern USA, Greenland, the North and Baltic Seas and around Iceland.

Unfortunately its popularity resulted in overfishing and during the 1990s there was a dramatic drop in the size of commercial catches. A temporary moratorium was introduced on fishing in some sea areas in an attempt to allow Atlantic Cod numbers to return to their former levels. Shoal numbers have improved, but the species is still not as abundant as it was before. There is pressure on fishing fleets to use more sustainable fishing techniques to maintain future supplies. There have also been advertising campaigns aimed at consumers to try to get them to eat other, more plentiful species of fish.

Graph showing collapse in Atlantic Cod stocks in 1992.
Graph showing collapse in Atlantic Cod stocks in 1992. | Source

Size and Weight of an Individual Atlantic Cod Fish

Atlantic Cod is a long living species. Some individual fish are known to have lived for twenty-five years although 12 to 13 years is more usual. Cod can grow to around 100 kilograms (220 pounds) in weight but the average weight of individual Atlantic Cod caught by commercial fishermen is between 5 to12 kilograms (11 to 26 pounds).

If you had an Atlantic Cod weighing, say, ten kilograms and removed 50% of it (bones, guts etc.), there will be five kilograms (eleven pounds) of edible flesh on the average sized Atlantic (Gadus morhua) Cod.

Atlantic Cod with distinctive barbel tag under its chin.
Atlantic Cod with distinctive barbel tag under its chin. | Source

Making Use of the Discards - Fish Soup or Broth

Rather than throw away 50% of a whole fish, the discards can be used to make a tasty fish soup or broth. There are many recipes for this. They involve boiling the bones, head, tail and gills together with onions, and root vegetables to make a fish stock. Once the bones and other fish remains have been strained out, you will be left with fish liquor. This can be seasoned to taste. The addition of further vegetables, pearl barley or fish flesh to the liquor will make a tasty and wholesome stew. The video below shows how simple it is to make a fish stock that can be used in fish stews and sauces.

Fish Bones, Head and Tail

Do you make fish soup (or broth) from fish bones, head, tail etc.?

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Fish Stock Recipe

Bouillabaisse (French Fish Broth)

There is a tasty fish stew from France called bouillabaisse that uses the leftovers from filleting fish. These are cooked up with herbs and spices to make a tasty broth. It is more substantial than a soup and is very filling. Bouillabaisse is thought to have its origins in the Marseille region of France. Traditionally, you should include at least five different types of fish and throw in some shellfish for good measure.

Bouillabaisse fish soup with crusty bread.
Bouillabaisse fish soup with crusty bread. | Source

What to Look For When Buying Fresh Fish

Fish's Eyes
Firm and springy
Indents easily
Fresh like melon or cucumber
Strong and offensive
Fish's Gills
Bright red or bright pink
Gray or pale color
Touch/ Feel

How to Buy Fresh Fish

Should You Buy Whole Fish or Ready Filleted?

Whenever possible, it is always better to buy a whole fish; that way you are able to see, smell and touch the whole fish before you commit to purchase. You will be able to assess the signs of freshness as described in the table and video above.

Once the fishmonger has weighed and priced the whole fish, he can fillet it for you. This is usually quicker and more convenient than doing it yourself as his knives will be really sharp. However, make sure that you ask him for all the discarded parts; i.e. skin, bones, entrails etc. as these can be used to make fish stock for bouillabaisse or some other delicious fish dish. Now you know that only half a cod fish is edible flesh, don’t waste 50% of your purchase!

A whole Atlantic Cod fish.
A whole Atlantic Cod fish. | Source


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  • buyingseafood profile image

    buyingseafood 16 months ago from New England

    There is quite a bit of codfish that was used historically. Besides the fillets, there is good meat on the head, including the cod cheeks - my favorite part. The tongue, the swim bladder (sounds) and the skin have all been consumed. In Iceland they used to put the codfish bones in sour milk to soften them before eating. And don't forget the liver and the roe, both historic delicacies. Nice article!