New research on the Atlantic wolffish, a depleted species that needs our help

In the deep ocean waters off New England’s coast lives one of our region’s most unique fish species: the Atlantic wolffish. While these fish may look threatening, and indeed they use their canine-like teeth (hence the name “wolffish”) to crush whole clams, scallops, sea urchins and crabs, Atlantic wolffish are themselves under threat from commercial fishing practices and modern fishing gear, which have decimated wolffish populations and destroyed the underwater habitat they call home.

An Atlantic wolffish eating a sea urchin. (Photo credit: Jonathan Bird)

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), over 1,200 metric tons of wolffish were caught in 1983. In 2009, the last year for which data is available, U.S. landings declined 97 percent to only 31.6 metric tons. Although wolffish are not targeted commercially, they are caught unintentionally in nets as bycatch, and they are also threatened by destructive modern fishing practices, such as trawling and dredging, that destroy the seafloor. Because wolffish live on the rocky seafloor and depend on its diverse features to hunt for prey and protect their young, the impact of trawling and dredging on these habitats can significantly limit the fish’s reproductive success and survival.

U.S. Landings of the Atlantic woflfish have declined dramatically over the past 25 years.

In 2008, concerned about the decline in Atlantic wolffish populations, the Conservation Law Foundation petitioned NMFS to list the fish under the Endangered Species Act. Although in 2004 the federal government designated the Atlantic wolffish as a Species of Concern, in 2009, NMFS declined CLF’s petition to list the wolffish as endangered, claiming that such protection was not warranted at this time. The New England Fishery Management Council has implemented a total ban on the possession of Atlantic wolffish, but the bycatch and habitat destruction described above still pose a threat to the survival of this unique species.

Scientists have taken note of the Atlantic wolffish’s plight and are conducting research to learn more about wolffish movements and behaviors. This spring and summer, the NE Wolffish Tagging Project, led by UNH and Gulf of Maine Research Institute scientists, along with commercial fishermen and the MA Division of Marine Fisheries, sampled the Atlantic wolffish population on Stellwagen Bank. Researchers studied age, growth patterns, and reproductive capabilities of the fish, and they tagged fish with unique identification numbers before releasing them. If a tagged fish is later caught by a fisherman, the project hopes the fisherman will report the recapture, allowing scientists to learn more about the size and distribution of the Atlantic wolffish population. More and better data about Atlantic wolffish can help fishermen avoid catching this threatened species and can lead to better management of the population. To learn more about this project, visit the NE Wolffish Tagging Project’s website and read a blog post on the project at the Good Morning Gloucester blog.


4 Responses to New research on the Atlantic wolffish, a depleted species that needs our help

  • anne robinson says:

    Have you looked to see if areas that were open to fishing in the 1980’s were closed in later years? Have mesh sizes gotten larger? Maybe regulation has something to do with the decline in catch.

    • Talking Fish says:

      Hi Anne,

      Thanks for pointing that out. It is certainly possible that commercial landings were affected by changes in regulation and closed areas. However, the fact is that Atlantic wolffish biomass, as measured by the NEFSC bi-annual bottom trawl surveys, has plummeted from the mid-1980s to today. For example, you can see in this chart (which we should have linked to originally) that the Atlantic wolffish spring biomass index declined from between 1.5 to 2.0 kg per tow in the mid-1980s to between 0.0 and 0.5 kg per tow in the mid-2000s – a dramatic decrease. You can read more here and here. It was this decline in biomass that led NOAA to list the Atlantic wolffish as a species of concern in 2004.

      Thank you for reading so thoroughly and taking the time to comment.

      Talking Fish

  • Doug Maxfield says:

    Love to read about scientists estimating biomass based on commercial landings…really shows a lack of effort. No mention of the decline in commercial fishing effort; no mention of gear restrictions and changes in mesh size; no mention of closed fishing areas. These factors may have an effect on your graph?

    • Talking Fish says:

      Hi Doug – You’re absolutely right that commercial fishing landings may have been affected by various changes in regulations. Anne Robinson expressed as similar concern in her comment above yours, and in our reply to her, we referenced biomass data from NEFSC fall and spring bottom trawl surveys. This data shows that the Atlantic wolffish has undergone a drastic decrease in biomass from the 1980s to today,and it should have been included in our original post. We hope you will see our response to Anne for more detail on this data. Thank you for taking the time to comment and add to the discussion.

Talking Fish reserves the right to remove any comment that contains personal attacks or inappropriate, offensive, or threatening language. For more information, see our comment policy.

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