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.


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