Fish Friday: A Rollercoaster of Demand for Atlantic Pollock

Atlantic PollockFriday, Friday, gotta read Fish (on) Friday. Last week, we featured a shark, and before that, a pretty little rosefish. But today, we have a real fish’s fish for you – a greenish, scaly, schooling creature with barbels and a classic fishy silhouette – the Atlantic pollock.

You are probably very familiar with this fish’s close relative, the cod, and you may even know about the Alaskan pollock – one of the largest, most valuable fisheries in the world. But have you ever heard of the Atlantic pollock?

Pollachius virens range. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.PollockGOM

To be even more specific, we’re talking about Pollachius virens, the species of pollock living in the Northwestern Atlantic (not to be confused with Pollachius pollachius, the Eastern Atlantic species). These guys are most common on the western Scotian Shelf, on Georges Bank, and in the Gulf of Maine (see map). Juveniles feed on crustaceans and small fish, while adults feed primarily on other fish. They may grow up to 3.5 feet long and live up to 23 years.

Ignored, Overfished, and then Ignored Once Again

Before the 1980s, Atlantic pollock were primarily harvested as bycatch. However, demand grew steadily, peaking in 1986. By 1994, the stock crashed due to overfishing. Strict management regulations were quickly put in place, and the population rebounded. By 2010, the Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine pollock stocks were 115% above target population levels. Today, the species is managed under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.

Much like the Acadian redfish and Atlantic spiny dogfish, the recovery of this species was a mega management victory. But the ecological recovery of Atlantic pollock came at a price – while the stocks were rebuilding, the Atlantic pollock fishery was largely ignored. So much so that even today, it is an afterthought compared to the Gulf of Maine cod, haddock, and flounder fisheries.

In 2014, only 26% of the potential harvest was actually caught. Why are we heavily overfishing some fish populations, while ignoring healthy Atlantic pollock stocks? Because there isn’t demand for Atlantic pollock – at least, not yet. As with three of our previously featured underutilized species (silver hake, Acadian redfish, and Atlantic spiny dogfish), the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Out of the Blue campaign is working to create consumer support for sustainable seafood, as well as incentivize restaurants to use these underappreciated species. Check out their Seafood Dining Series to sample local, responsibly harvested seafood masterpieces, or try whipping up some Atlantic pollock for yourself with these cooking tips!

Bon Appétit!

While landings peak from November to January, Atlantic pollock are typically available year-round. They’re very low in saturated fat and are a great source of protein, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and selenium. You can find them as whole, as fillets, and as fresh, frozen, or smoked steaks – but make sure you’re buying Atlantic pollock, not Alaskan pollock, for a local meal! The Alaskan pollock fishery is well-managed and stocks are not overfished, but eating fish from the Pacific won’t help incentivize Gulf of Maine fishermen to harvest underutilized species. We need to build a demand for sustainable seafood from our own backyard!

The firm, white meat of Alantic pollock has a sweet, delicate flavor and is great for dishes such as Atlantic pollock in cartoccio with preserved blood orange (basically an easy, delicious, fancy fish cooked in a bag). Or if you’re a fish sandwich kind of person, you could try an island spiced pollock sandwich with sautéed spinach, tomato, avocado and cherry pepper aioli. Yum!

Hungry yet? What are you waiting for? Make room for Atlantic Pollock!

Fish Friday: Atlantic Spiny Dogfish, the Comeback Shark

On this marvelous Friday, we bring to our fish-loving friends a miraculous fish – the Atlantic spiny dogfish. Spiny Dogfish

This groundfish (which…SURPRISE! is actually a shark) suffered a serious population decline in the 1990s, but stocks have since recovered. In fact, the dogfish is now the largest shark fishery in the U.S.

Small, but Spiny

Spiny dogfish have slim bodies and a narrow pointed snout. They are gray in color, with white bottoms, but no chance you’ll mistake these guys for great whites. Dogfish have characteristic white spots and only grow to 4 feet (females) and 3.3 feet (males).

Typical of any groundfish, spiny dogfish swim in large schools near bottom habitat. They prefer temperate areas (Nova Scotia to Cape Hatteras) and will migrate seasonally as water temperature changes, moving north in the spring and summer months and south in the fall and winter. Some brave dogfish will take on the winter in the north, but will move to offshore waters.

Spiny dogfish are opportunistic feeders. Their preferred meal choice changes as they grow larger: the kids menu features primarily crustaceans, but larger dogfish take on jellies, squid, and schooling fish. And these sharks are more than just teeth – they have venomous spines on their dorsal fins! Unfortunately for the dogfish, the spines don’t seem to deter predators. Cod, red hake, goosefish, other spiny dogfish and larger sharks, seals, and orcas often make the dinner out of the dogfish.

An Attractive Female Fish
Spiny Dogfish
Dogfish grow slowly and reach sexual maturity later in life, females at 12 years and males at 6 years. They spawn offshore in winter months, and females give birth to live young, averaging 6 pups per litter.

Female dogfish are larger than males (growing to 4 feet versus 3.3 feet), which make them an attractive catch for fishermen. This, combined with late sexual maturity, makes populations vulnerable to overfishing. Between 1987 and 1996, when traditional groundfish stocks ran low and international demand for dogfish increased, fishermen began targeting these larger females. It only took about ten years for populations to decline to minimum sustainable levels in 1998.

A Return to Glory

Once declared overfished, New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery managers began work on a Spiny Dogfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP), which was implemented in 2000. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council now leads on dogfish management actions, and in 2003 the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission issued an interstate FMP to accompany the original plan. Talk about fisheries management cooperation!

The FMP implemented in 2000 established low annual and per trip catch limits, which were effective. Although the species is still victim to trawler bycatch, NOAA Fisheries declared spiny dogfish populations rebuilt in 2010, and catch limits were increased.

Fishermen use longline, hand lines, and gillnets to catch the species. 28 million pounds of Atlantic spiny dogfish were harvested in 2012, a catch that was valued at $5 million.

SHARK and chips?

With all of this talk about the dogfish fishery, you might be wondering – who even buys and eats dogfish (a shark)?!

Massachusetts fishermen landed over half of the 2012 dogfish catch, but this abundant shark still remains an underutilized species in the U.S. The demand for U.S. dogfish comes from Europe where the species is used in common dishes such as British fish and chips and German shillerlocken, a beer garden snack.

Efforts are underway in the U.S. to promote dogfish consumption. GMRI’s Out of the Blue campaign hosted a Cape Shark Week this past July. They partnered with eight restaurants throughout New England to showcase the delicious species and build consumer awareness.

So what does dogfish taste like?! It’s a firm, flaky white meat with a sweet, mild flavor (think dogfish in tomato and citrus). Are we making you hungry yet?! What about roasted dogfish with red curry and bok choy or grilled dogfish kebabs with couscous and salsa verde?

And even more good news: dogfish is available year round and is a great low-fat source of protein, as well as selenium and vitamins B6 and B12!

Fish Friday: Acadian Redfish – Consume Regularly for a Healthy Ocean

A Floral Fish?
I must admit, it was a lovely little nickname of the Acadian redfish (Sebastes fasciatus) that drew me to feature this cool creature – “rosefish.” While they most certainly do not stay true to this name in odor, they make up for it in color. Redfish range from pale yellow to bright red, much like their floral namesake.
Acadian Redfish
Acadian redfish – a rosey-hued deep sea dweller. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.

You may also recognize redfish by the name “ocean perch,” but they are not, in fact, perch (genus Perca); they are actually rockfish (genus Sebastes). Literally, these guys love rocks…and mud, and clay. Basically, they love bottom substrates.

In the Gulf of Maine, redfish most commonly live at depths up to 975 feet. Juveniles are often found hanging out around deep sea corals such as Primnoa. The corals serve as nursery grounds that provide shelter and an array of delicious invertebrates for the juveniles to snack on. As they mature, they begin to feed on larger invertebrates and small fish.
Redfish and Primnoa
A redfish hangs out under some Primnoa. Image via NOAA Fishwatch.

Military-Grade Protein

Unlike cod and haddock, redfish weren’t always a crowd favorite. But in the 1930s, food freezing technology was developed, and the market for frozen redfish quickly arose. The fish were readily abundant and easily distributed in frozen form, making them a perfect source of protein for the U.S. military in the 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately, by the mid-1980s, heavily-exploited redfish stocks reached an all-time low.

Around this time, scientists determined that redfish have sensitive biological characteristics that make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing: slow growth rates, low reproductive rates, late sexual maturity, and long lifespans. Taking these factors into consideration, fishery managers imposed strict regulations on fishing gear, catch limits, and fishing areas for Acadian redfish. By June 2012, the stock was declared fully recovered. The population is now estimated to be at 32% above the target population – a true fisheries management success story!

Changing Gear and Changing Mindsets

Redfish populations may be thriving, but neither fishermen nor consumers have been paying them much attention. In 2010, only about 23% of the total allowable Gulf of Maine total allowable catch was harvested. Add to that the fact that most of the GOM harvest was used as lobster bait, and you have a seriously underutilized species on your hands!

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Cooperative Research took action to help the redfish fishery reach its full potential. Fishermen joined government officials, scientists and researchers, and other industry leaders for REDNET, a collaborative effort to “efficiently harvest the redfish resource in the Gulf of Maine while avoiding non-target catch” (NOAA Fishwatch).

Redfish grow up to 20 inches, but they have a flattened shape. Although still a victim to bycatch, their narrow bodies sometimes allow them to slip through standard 6.5 inch mesh groundfish nets. In March 2011, REDNET partners tested a 4.5 inch mesh on five commercial trips in the Gulf of Maine. According to the April 2012 Completion Report, the smaller mesh was extremely effective; the trips harvested commercial levels of redfish without significant levels of bycatch, which had been the fear.

After the successful demonstration of the 4.5 inch mesh, the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) passed a rule allowing trawlers to use the smaller mesh only when targeting redfish (catch must be 80 percent redfish). With regulations in place, fishermen just need the incentive to commercially harvest redfish; they need to see that there is a market for their catch, that consumers are demanding the species.

Mmmm…..redfish

Remember how we talked about silver hake, another underappreciated GOM species? How the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) is running Out of the Blue to elevate consumer awareness and make under-loved GOM species profitable for fishermen to target? The Acadian redfish is in the same boat (pun intended!). GMRI is working with chefs, restaurants, and institutions to rebuild demand and create a market for redfish. Think: providing sustainable seafood information to culinary partners, rewarding restaurants that practice marine resource stewardship, and hosting a Seafood Dining Series to educate consumers. They want to give overfished populations, such as cod, a break by promoting more abundant alternatives. Maple miso redfish, anyone?

It keeps getting better. Acadian redfish are available year round; they’re low in saturated fat, calories, and mercury; and they’re good sources of calcium, protein, phosphorus, selenium, niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. So next time you’re craving fish tacos, make them spicy redfish tacos a delicious choice that’s good for the ocean and good for you.

Fish Friday: Atlantic Halibut – Don’t Let the Googly Eyes Fool You

Hello and happy Friday, fishy friends! We’re here to close out your week with another piscine creature feature. Today, we’re talking about a monstrous flatfish – the voracious, predacious Atlantic halibut.
Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine
Image via Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Big, Bad Beasties

Does this image reflect the intimidating sea beast you had in mind? Probably not. Like all flatfish, Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) lie on their left sides, giving them a goofy, almost crooked appearance. But don’t be fooled – their mouths gape all the way back to their eyes and are lined with sharp, curved teeth. Atlantic halibut range in color from dark chocolate to an olive brown with a blotchy, clouded gray lower side. Lying flat on the ocean floor, these fish are nearly invisible as they wait to ambush their prey. Starting to sound a little more predacious, right?

Now let’s dig into the “voracious” part. Atlantic halibut eat practically everything: other fish including cod, cusk, haddock, redfish, sculpins, hake, wolffish, and mackerel; as well as invertebrates like lobsters and crab. They’ve even reportedly eaten sea birds. Oh, and indigestible materials like iron, wood, and drift ice. These guys are pretty much the definition of opportunistic feeders – they’re out to eat whatever is most readily available. In the Gulf of Maine, though, they prefer to feed chiefly on other fish. And don’t worry, as opportunistic as they are, they are completely harmless to humans.

This is lucky, considering how “monstrous” they are…or at least were. Reports of 600 to 700 lb. Atlantic halibuts are often viewed as exaggerations, but at least one account of a fish in this weight class, caught about 50 miles off of Cape Ann by Capt. A. S. Ree in 1917, has been confirmed. The world record according to the International Game Fish Association (est. 1939) stands at 418 lbs., caught off the Norwegian coast in 2004.

Today, however, “large” Atlantic halibut hauled into New England docks range from about 50 to 200 lbs. It is believed that fully-grown females average between 100 and 150 lbs., while males weigh significantly less. Now, a 150 lb. fish is still pretty ginormous in my book, but why aren’t we finding the 600+ lb. whoppers of the 19th and early 20th centuries?

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

That seems to be the motto of the commercial Atlantic halibut industry. Before 1820, these colossal fish were considered to be a nuisance. They hindered cod fishermen’s efforts by eating and chasing away their catch, often snapping some fishing gear in the process. However, a market for Atlantic halibut meat arose in Boston sometime between 1820 and 1825, and that was the beginning of the end.

The Atlantic halibut fishery was a boom and bust deal. The fish were first pursued inshore. As with most fisheries, the biggest fish were the first to go, resulting in smaller average body size and dramatically reduced biomass. When stocks began noticeably declining (around 1839), fishermen moved offshore. By 1850, there were so few halibut left that it was no longer profitable for small boats to fish. In a last-ditch, desperate effort, the fishery was extended to deeper waters (600 – 1200 ft.) on Georges Bank in 1875. The only populations that maintained their numbers lived on even deeper slopes, out of the reach of fishing gear.

In 1996, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified Atlantic halibut as endangered. NOAA followed suit in 2004 with a “Species of Concern” listing, acknowledging severe population decline, but withholding Endangered Species Act protections due to species data deficiencies. Today, thanks to careful fishing regulations under the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, populations have stabilized enough to be identified as vulnerable.

Atlantic halibut are bottom-oriented fish that have been able to survive by seeking refuge from human exploitation on deep sea slopes, such as in Cashes Ledge. These areas, which were historically fished less intensively than more easily accessible regions, provide vital feeding and breeding grounds to Atlantic halibut and offer them the chance to persist – to sustain viable populations and to recover from a dramatically overfished past. Yet, low existing biomass and slow growth rates mean that this species is still extremely susceptible to overexploitation. We must continue to maintain vigilance in our protections.

To preserve deep sea mountains and canyons is to protect monstrous majesties like the Atlantic halibut.

 

 

Special Species Round-Up: 6 Creatures found in Cashes Ledge

If you are familiar with New England Ocean Odyssey, you know we love Cashes Ledge, a majestic 25-mile undersea mountain range and biological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine.Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

You know that this natural laboratory offers scientists the chance to explore a relatively pristine and unique ecosystem, to discover and observe rare and endangered species, and to hypothesize about what the greater Gulf of Maine looked like before the commercial fishing industry existed.

You know that Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the mountain chain, rises from a depth of 460 feet all the way up into the photic zone (exposure to sunlight), just 40 feet below the ocean’s surface. And you know that Ammen Rock disrupts the dominant Gulf of Maine current, swirling nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters from the seafloor to the top of the water column, providing ideal conditions for a huge array of marine life including sponges, corals, anemones, predatory fish, sharks, whales, and more.

But what specific special species reside at Cashes Ledge, and what migratory visitors stop by throughout the year? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out!

1. (Unclassified) Blue Sponge

This species is so incredibly rare, it hasn’t even been sighted anywhere apart from the rocky walls of Cashes Ledge, let alone taxonomically classified. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn about this species. Cashes is also home to a variety of bright red, orange, and yellow sponges, including mounding sponges as big as footballs! Cod and Invertebrates

Cod swim under a wall of sponges and other invertebrates. Image via NOAA/ONMS

Sponges are primitive creatures that latch on to hard surfaces anywhere from the intertidal zone to the deep ocean floor. They filter feed by absorbing tiny organisms through incurrent (think “inbound”) pores and excreting waste through excurrent (“outbound”) pores. Many sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually.

 

2. Red Cod

You’ve read about, seen, and probably eaten Atlantic cod…but have you ever heard of red Atlantic cod? While genetic testing has yet to determine if this variation is a distinct species, Graham Sherwood, Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, hypothesizes that it is not. All cod eat high levels of carotenoids (natural pigments found in organisms such as crabs and worms), so it’s no surprise that some cod are red in color. But why are some red while most are olive-colored?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

An olive cod (top) and a red cod (bottom) swim through kelp forests at Cashes Ledge. Images via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.
Sherwood’s theory is that the red coloring is an adaptive advantage. Red cod typically permanently reside in shallower kelp forests, while olive-colored cod roam around deeper waters in the North Atlantic. The red coloring may be a U/V protectant or a form of camouflage for shallower waters. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if red cod are a separate species, or if they are just a colorful variation of olive-colored Atlantic cod.

Check out more Brian Skerry photos of red and olive-colored cod at Cashes Ledge.

 

3. Christmas Anemone

Urticina crassicornis, the Christmas anemone, resides on rock faces at depths up to about 100 feet and may grow to be a foot tall and 8 inches in diameter. It feeds on crabs, urchins, mussels, gastropods, chitons, barnacles, and fish by stinging and stunning prey with venomous cells found in the anemone’s tentacles.

The candy-striped shrimp, Lebbeus grandimanus, is immune to the Christmas anemone’s sting; the two organisms live in a commensal relationship whereby the anemone provides shelter for the shrimp, and the shrimp does not affect the anemone.

Red Anemone A Northern red anemone on a rock wall at Cashes Ledge. CLF/Brett Seymour.

 

 

 

 

4. Porbeagle

Cod and InvertebratesPorbeagle, Lamna nasus. Credit NMFS/E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley.

No, that’s not a white shark – it’s the great white’s lesser known relative, the porbeagle, Lamna nasus. The porbeagle can be easily distinguished from a white shark by its second dorsal fin (that tiny second bump on the shark’s back before its tail). These big guys can grow up to 11 ½ feet long and are highly migratory throughout the Northwest Atlantic. They tend to stay out of shallow waters along the coast, preferring pelagic waters from the surface to depths of 1000 feet. In the Gulf of Maine, they feed on mackerel, herring, other small fish and sharks, and squids.

NOAA listed the porbeagle as a “Species of Concern” for the Northwest Atlantic stock in 2006, the same year that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the subpopulation as endangered. Since the 1960s, overfishing has been a major threat to porbeagles, which are slow-growing with low productivity rates, making it difficult for populations to recover. In the U.S., the species is managed by the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing two 2010 proposals to list the porbeagle on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.

 

5. North Atlantic Right Whale

The waters off the coast of New England get some magnificent, gigantic visitors. Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, hang out around New England and the Bay of Fundy in the summer and fall to feed on zooplankton and raise their young. They move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, often stopping at Cashes Ledge, where regular circulation of the water column produces plankton-rich waters. In the winter months, the whales typically migrate to birthing grounds in the coastal waters off the southeastern United States.

The North Atlantic Right Whale was subject to intensive whaling from the 1500s through 1935; populations off the east coast of North America are still struggling to recover, due in large part to boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whale with Provincetown lighthouse (Long Point) in the backgroundA North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay in front of Provincetown, MA. Image via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.

 

 

6. Bubble Gum Coral

Deep-water coral colonies thrive in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. Paragorgia arborea, nicknamed bubble gum coral for its pink color, is a fan-shaped coral (aka “sea fan”…creative, right?) that typically inhabits exposed locations at depths of 600 to 4,300 feet. It can grow up to six meters tall, making it a real treasure for divers to spot. At Cashes Ledge, Paragorgia inhabits the hard-bottom basalt substrate.

Deep sea corals grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers. One sweep of a trawl net can destroy centuries of growth – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat.

Paragorgia

Paragorgia colonies in the New England Seamount chain. Image via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

These are just six of the marvelous, charismatic species that depend on the nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. If we are to protect them, we must start by protecting Cashes Ledge.

Fish Friday: The Hooded Seal – Battling Foes with a Bladder Nose

Welcome to another installation of Fish Friday! For the past six weeks, we’ve stayed true to our name and featured nothing but fish. But this week, we couldn’t resist sharing this super adorable, territorial, and insanely weird Gulf of Maine marine mammal visitor – the hooded seal (Cystophora cristata). HoodedSeal

Bladder Noses

Hooded seal pups are born cute and fluffy with blue-black pelts. They’re about 3 feet long and weigh 55 pounds at birth. They quickly shoot up to 90 pounds before they are weaned at around 4 days old (the shortest weaning period for any mammal)! At five days old, pups begin to eat crustaceans while honing their swimming and diving skills. What a busy first week of life!

Once males reach sexual maturity, the days of cute, fuzzy little noses are gone. Between 5 and 7 years old, male hooded seals develop an elastic, bi-lobed nasal cavity and nasal septum that can inflate from the front of the face to the top of the head. When inflated, a seal’s “hood” resembles a pink balloon — smack dab in the middle of its face! Hence the nickname “bladder nose.”

Males use this “bladder nose” to get females’ attention during mating season and to scare off competition for mates. It may not sound like the most frightening tactic, but think about it – if your adversary could blow up his nasal cavity to twice the size of your own nose balloon, you’d probably realize your infinitesimal chances at winning that fight and scamper off to pursue another potential mate.

Sizing each other up via nose balloon size saves these big guys a lot of energy — but if it looks like an evenly-matched fight, they will resort to physical blows.

And when adult male hooded seals battle, there’s a lot of weight thrown around. At around 8 feet long and some 660 pounds, it takes a lot of effort to just move, let alone fling their bodies at competitors. (Females are noticeably smaller than males, weighing in at around 440 pounds and measuring about 7 feet long.)

These seals are less social, more territorial, and more aggressive than other seal species. They gather together at their historic breeding grounds in the spring to produce young and molt. The main breeding grounds include the Gulf of St. Lawrence, off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador, Davis Strait, and the Norwegian Sea near Jan Mayen Island.

After breeding and molting, hooded seals spend a majority of the year migrating. Many pass through the Gulf of Maine during their travels. While some are spotted as far south as Florida and the Caribbean, most stay in the Arctic Ocean and Northern Atlantic, where they thrive on pack ice in colder waters.

Hooded seals spend their days diving to depths of about 325-1,950 feet, searching for crustaceans, squid, starfish, mussels, and fish such as cod, halibut, and herring. Their only known natural predators are polar bears and orcas — but human hunting has had a huge impact on hooded seal populations.

Historically Hunted

In the 19th and 20th centuries, hooded seals were hunted commercially, mainly by Norway, the Soviet Union, Canada, and Greenland. Adults were harvested for oil and leather products, while pups were taken for their prized blue-black pelts.

In the 1970s, the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) was created and began managing seal harvesting in international waters. NAFO controls sealer licenses, sets quotas for allowable take, prohibits harvesting in specific regions, and has banned all pup harvests. In the early 1980s, the European Economic Community outlawed hooded seal commercial harvests, as well as the import of hooded seal products. In the United States, hooded seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

On Thin Ice

Unfortunately, many hooded seal populations are still vulnerable to a number of threats. Illegal harvests still occur, even though populations are carefully managed. Fisheries catch and discard hooded seals as bycatch and may force seals into competition for food.

Finally, as a pack ice- and cold water-dependent species, the future of hooded seals on a warming planet remains uncertain. Will their breeding grounds still exist in 50 years? Will prey species such as Arctic cod be available? Will polar development further expose Arctic marine mammals to contaminants and pollutants?

For now, we must focus on limiting the indirect impacts to hooded seal populations. Let’s work hard to reduce our emissions and to ensure that our fisheries are sustainable. In doing so, we’ll be protecting the hooded seals and the ecosystems within which they exist.

 

Fish Friday: Silver Hake – A Scrumptious and Sustainable Cod Substitute

You’ve heard a lot about cod lately. If you’re a fish-eating fan, you’ve probably eaten your fair SilverHakeshare, too. But as New England stocks have been continuously overfished since the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t it time we considered some delicious cod substitutes? How about another scrumptious whitefish (and today’s fishy feature), the silver hake?!

Hungry Hungry Hake

Silver hake (Merluccius bilinearies­), also known as Atlantic whiting, are medium-sized fish that may grow to be 5 lbs and upwards of 28” long. As nocturnal and semi-pelagic predators, they spend their days resting on the sandy, pebble ocean floor during the day and move up the water column to feed from around dusk to midnight.

Atlantic whiting are vital to the Gulf of Maine (GOM) ecosystem because they serve as both predator and prey species. Silver hake are so abundant and such voracious predators that they help to regulate prey populations. They are a piscivorous species, meaning they feed on other fish including young herring, mackerel, menhaden, alewives, and sand lance, in addition to crustaceans and squids. But whiting don’t just eat a ton – they also get eaten a ton! Nearly all predators in the Gulf of Maine consume whiting, especially cod, tuna, and other silver hake (so piscivorous…and cannibalistic!). 

Stable Stocks

In the Northwest Atlantic, silver hake are managed as two stocks – one to the north (the Gulf of Maine and Northern Georges Bank) and one to the south (Southern Georges Bank all the way to Cape Hatteras). In the summer months, adult fish migrate to shallow waters in the Northwest Atlantic to spawn. Both stocks can be found in the Gulf of Maine from Cape Cod to Grand Manan Island, in the southern and southeastern portions of Georges Bank, and just south of Martha’s Vineyard.

Thanks to monitoring by NOAA’s New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, there is sufficient data to accurately assess Atlantic whiting stocks. And good news – both the northern and southern populations are stable with no evidence of overfishing!

NEFMC manages the Atlantic whiting stocks under the New England Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP). In 2000, Amendment 12 to the FMP designated silver hake as “small-mesh multispecies.” The Amendment also established retention limits, defined “overfishing” for the species, identified critical habitat, and set fishing gear requirements. In 2013, Amendment 19 to the FMP established annual catch limits and put accountability measures in place.

Fishing requirements for “small-mesh” species are put in place to reduce bycatch of vulnerable populations, such as cod. In 2002, fishermen and scientists began experimenting with modified otter trawls, trying to determine the best way to target silver hake without impacting the benthic marine environment or other fish populations. They began using sweepless nets, trawl nets without groundgear components. These nets reduced bycatch of lobster and other benthic species to just 2%! Researchers then began testing the Nordmore grate, which prevent larger finfish (yes, cod) from being caught, while letting smaller fish (whiting) pass into the trawl nets. These designs were incredibly successful and have been adopted into portions of the management plan.

The GOM whiting fishery is open from July 1 to November 30 each year, and, if fishermen use sweepless trawl nets and Nordmore grates, they may harvest from areas closed to other fishing types. So why are New England fishermen ignoring silver hake and still overfishing cod?

A Scrumptious and Sustainable Substitute

For decades, only a handful of fish species, like cod and salmon, have ruled our plates and menus. The high demand for such prominent species has put many stocks at severe risk of overfishing and driven some to near depletion.

Meanwhile, perfectly edible (nay, delicious!) species, such as silver hake and dogfish, are not at risk of overfishing – in fact, they’re relatively ignored.

Historically undervalued and underappreciated, silver hake has long been considered a “bycatch” species, deemed unworthy of human consumption.

In 2013, the average boat price for Atlantic cod was $2.10/lb, while silver hake went for only $0.64/lb. Why the discrepancy? A total lack of U.S. consumer awareness.

Low demand means that Maine fishermen can’t afford to target underutilized species. In 2014, only 16% of the potential GOM silver hake harvest was taken. Meanwhile, other GOM stocks are struggling to maintain viable populations.

To address this imbalance, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) began Out of the Blue, a consumer awareness campaign that brings together restaurant, retail, and institutional partners to promote the consumption of five GOM underappreciated species: Acadian redfish, Atlantic mackerel, cape shark (dogfish), whiting, and Atlantic pollock. As part of the campaign, GMRI and local restaurant partners run a Seafood Dining Series to bring these species to New Englanders’ plates. Have you tried them yet?!

Red’s Best, a New England seafood network, also recently launched an initiative to improve seafood sustainability and traceability in the region. Red’s ensures that consumers are able to trace their purchase through transportation, processing, and distribution, and provides fishermen with incentive to fish underloved species.

Consumers – it’s our turn. Let’s help the fishermen help the New England cod stocks by switching to a more sustainable alternative. How good does whiting with garlic and lemon sound? We want whiting!

Bonus: check out more drool-worthy Out of the Blue recipes and helpful cooking tips!

Fish Friday: The Atlantic Wolffish – Antifreeze Included

It’s FRIDAY! And you know what that means – time for another fishy feature. This week, we’re talking about a deep ocean predator, the Atlantic Wolffish. AtlanticWolffish

What Big Teeth You Have!

It’s clear where the wolffish gets its name. Those canines kind of remind you of…an actual wolf, right? But those visible chompers aren’t even the wolffish’s most useful dental feature; they use three sets of crushing teeth on the roofs of their mouths to grind down their hard-shelled prey – so hard that their teeth fall out every year after spawning and are replaced by a new set! Wolf AtlanticWolffish

Which one’s the wolf, and which one’s the wolffish? Images via National Park Service (left) and Jonathan Bird (right).

Atlantic wolffish are voracious predators, feeding on mollusks, crustaceans, and echinoderms (think urchins and sea stars). So voracious, in fact, that they serve as keystone species in North Atlantic food webs because they help limit populations of sea urchins and green crabs.

Without the wolffish around, urchin and green crab populations could explode, which would have serious negative impacts on the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

Unique Biology

Can you imagine swimming in 30º to 50ºF (-1.2º to 10.2 ºC) water? That’s cold. The Atlantic wolffish prefers depths of 250 to 400 ft (80 to 120 m), so they live in water that frigid. How do they do it? No, they don’t wear wetsuits; they have something even better – concentrations of an antifreeze compound in their blood! And that’s not the only thing that makes these crazy creatures so unique. Unlike most fish species, which “broadcast spawn” (females release thousands of eggs into the water, and males compete to fertilize them externally), Atlantic wolffish pair up and fertilize the female’s eggs internally (much in the same way mammals mate). The female incubates the eggs for four to nine months (depending on the water temperature) before laying them in large clusters, which the male then aggressively protects for about four months until they hatch. AtlanticWolffishPair

Image via Jonathan Bird.

Greenland sharks, Atlantic cod, haddock, gray seals, and even spotted wolffish prey on pelagic Atlantic wolffish larvae. And occasionally, the larvae may resort to eating each other . . . not the healthiest sibling relationships. Those that survive to be early juveniles transition to benthic habitats, where they prefer complex substrates such as rocky outcrops and kelp beds. They can grow up to 5 feet (1.5 m), weigh up to 40 pounds (18 kg), and live to be up to twenty years old. Wolffish are slow-growing and don’t reach sexual maturity until about age six, which can make them susceptible to fishing pressure, as stocks recover slowly.

Populations in Peril

Since the 1980s, populations of this deep sea creature have been consistently dropping, and average fish size has decreased by 50%. It’s not like there’s a commercial wolffish fishery – so what’s happening?

The biggest threat to Atlantic wolffish is otter trawling. Wolffish are caught as bycatch, indiscriminately snagged by enormous nets intended for commercially harvested species. To add insult to injury, these nets scrape along the seafloor, crushing fragile corals, disturbing rocky outcrops and kelp beds, and re-suspending bottom sediments that damage the fish’s gills and potentially release settled toxic heavy metals.

Atlantic wolffish were historically found from the Gulf of Maine all the way down to New Jersey. However, after decades of habitat destruction, there are only three populations remaining: the Gulf of Maine, Georges Bank, and the Great South Channel (a passage between Nantucket and Georges Bank). To address population decline, NOAA identified the Atlantic wolffish as “Species of Concern” in 2004 and manages the species under Amendment 16 to the Northeast Fisheries Management Plan. But is that enough?

The fact that current population estimates don’t exist is a huge cause for concern. Direct studies on stock structure are a gaping piece of the puzzle in understanding and managing Atlantic wolffish populations. We know they were declining dramatically until 2009, the last year for which data is available. We need to know more.

Canada has protected their stocks through the country’s Species at Risk Act, but the U.S. has yet to follow suit. In 2009, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied CLF’s petition for the Atlantic wolffish to be protected under the Endangered Species Act. What are we waiting for? Let’s get the conversation started about this crazy, rare, toothy, weird, unique deep sea dweller. We want to protect the Atlantic wolffish!