Atlantic Wolffish – Cool as Sharks, Hotter than Shark Week

Some people are enraptured by the fearsome predatory nature of sharks. The image of the omnipotent king of the seas, roaming the deep and preying on any hapless creature small or large, holds a permanent niche in the American psyche. Sharks are cool, there is no doubt. Just look at the media celebration known as Shark Week, which happens every summer. Don’t worry, we get shark fever too, and Brian Skerry has some incredible new shark photos, which we’ll be debuting soon.


However, let’s not allow the annual shark-mania to block out the real glamour of other denizens of the deep, which reside at Cashes Ledge and in other spots across the Gulf of Maine. My favorite creature is the Atlantic wolffish, also known as the sea wolf. (This animal is so cool they named a whole class of attack submarines after it and the sports teams at a New England college.) If there is an animal that illustrates both the wonderful diversity of New England’s ocean and the need for protecting habitat for ocean wildlife, it is the Atlantic wolffish. If there is a special place in New England’s ocean worthy of providing better and more permanent protection it is Cashes Ledge.


We’ve talked about these toothy fish before, but they merit lots of discussion given how important they are to our Gulf of Maine ecosystem and how much they need our protection. Atlantic wolffish population numbers have taken a perilous decline since the early 1980s. The threats from commercial fishing practices – especially bottom trawling gear –has not only decimated wolffish populations but destroyed the type of rocky underwater habitat which they depend upon. For a species that absolutely needs rocky outcrops and small cave-like structures, the impacts to their habitat are particularly harmful.


By 2006, Atlantic Wolffish populations across the Gulf of Maine had declined to a point where serious action was needed. Then the Conservation Law Foundation and Dr. Erica Fuller prepared and filed a petition to protect the wolffish under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The petition received enough attention for this “gruesome fish” that the National Marine Fisheries Service eventually placed a complete restriction on harvest and possession of Atlantic wolffish across the North Atlantic. This falls short of the full protection warranted under the ESA, but since the wolffish can be successfully caught and released, this temporary fishing regulation gives the wolffish population enough limited protection to recover while further studies are done.


The rocky slopes of Cashes Ledge provide excellent habitat for the wolffish, and Cashes Ledge is an even more important area since the destructive bottom trawling gear has been banned year-round there since 2002 through fishery management regulations put into place by the New England Fishery Management Council.