Atlantic Wolffish: A Face only a Mother Could Love?

Bulging of eye and jagged of tooth, the Atlantic wolffish won’t win any beauty contests, but this incredible fish has won our hearts, here at Conservation Law Foundation. OK, so we’re fish people, but we think anyone who gets to know this amazing animal will see the beauty and importance in the Atlantic wolffish. The wolffish, like its name implies, is a keystone predator, or an animal that has a critical ecological function. For example, the predatory wolffish helps keep herbivorous sea urchin populations from exploding and decimating kelp forests. This can provide benefits throughout the food chain to iconic New England species such as cod and lobster.

Look at the impressive set of canine teeth on this wolffish. It is easy to imagine the unprecedented shell-crushing power that helps them eat whole oysters, crabs and sea urchins. If you can’t imagine it, then check out these little video clips and see for yourself! The shells they crunch up eventually turn into gravelly habitat for other animals, like sea cucumbers.

The wolffish, which has evolved with natural anti-freeze to keep its blood flowing in the deep, ice-cold water of the Gulf of Maine it calls home, can live up to 20 years and weigh as much as 40 pounds. Unlike most fish which broadcast millions of eggs into the water to be fertilized by the male and then abandoned, the wolffish pair up (did you check out the video clips?) to reproduce, and spawning occurs internally. The male then protects the eggs in a nest for up to four months. So much for only getting motherly love!

The wolffish is subjected to tremendous fishing pressure. It is a common bycatch species discarded in New England’s groundfishery, and the trawls and dredges that manage to catch wolffish destroy much of its rocky habitat in the process. Unfortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently decided not to afford this ecologically vital native fish protection under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS ultimately imposed a ban on wolffish landings but took no action to protect its seafloor habitat. Protecting essential habitat for the Atlantic wolffish may be one way to help ensure its survival in the Gulf of Maine in important areas like Cashes Ledge and Stellwagen Bank.