ELLSWORTH — In a decision that could lead to the first listing of a New England ocean fish species as endangered, federal officials kicked off the new year with the announcement that they were beginning an official review of the Atlantic wolffish as a threatened or endangered species.
The decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that a petition filed by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), Les Watling and Erica Fuller presented substantial scientific and commercial data indicating that an endangered listing may be warranted. Watling is a marine science professor at the University of Maine. Fuller is an environmental lawyer in Boston.
“Unless the federal government takes action quickly, the Atlantic wolffish could face extinction in New England’s ocean waters,” Peter Shelley, CLF vice president and senior attorney, said in a statement announcing the NOAA’s decision. “Overfishing and the widespread destruction of underwater habitat from modern fishing gear have ravaged native populations of the wolffish, threatening an important species in our marine ecosystem. This is one fish that should be taken off everyone’s menus.”
With a long eel-like tail and a mouth full of large canine teeth, the wolffish (Anarhichas lupus) is one of New England’s most unique ocean fish, and also one of the most endangered. NOAA’s decision, announced in the Jan. 5 Federal Register, launches a nine-month review of biological, scientific and commercial data by an independent team of scientists to determine whether the wolffish should receive full protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The petition cited federal and independent scientific studies that show over the past 20 years dramatic declines in the wolffish population and destruction of the deep underwater habitat that the fish needs to successfully reproduce and survive.
An endangered species listing under would require federal agencies to designate protected critical habitat for the fish and to implement a recovery plan to restore the Atlantic wolfish populations.
According to federal statistics, the amount of wolffish landed by commercial fishermen has dropped 95 percent, from over 1,200 metric tons (about 2.6 million pounds) in 1983 to just 64.7 metric tons (about 145,500 pounds) in 2007. More critically, wolffish have virtually disappeared from the annual scientific research trawl surveys that NOAA conducts in the spring and fall in state and federal waters off the New England coast.
The wolffish is one of the odder species to inhabit the Gulf of Maine. Generally solitary creatures, the bottom-dweller prefers to make its home at depths of around 80-120 meters (260-390 feet), but can be found in waters as deep as 500 meters (1,640 feet).
Wolffish can grow to nearly 5 feet in length and weigh as much as 40 pounds. Their gaping mouths are filled with sharp canine teeth that are replaced annually. Their preferred diet includes shellfish, crustaceans and sea urchins.
A slow growing species, the wolffish generally attains reproductive maturity at around six years. During the spring and summer, the usually solitary males and females form bonded pairs, behavior that may be related to spawning.