Fisheries and Oceans Canada
Threatened, listed under SARA
Region: Arctic and Atlantic Oceans
Eat and be eaten
With razor-sharp teeth and powerful jaws allow the northern wolffish to capture moving (pelagic) fish, starfish, sea urchins and crabs. They also include some bottom-dwelling (benthic) organisms in their diet. Its fearsome teeth, however, ensure that it has few natural predators. It is never retained by fishers for food because of its watery and jelly-like flesh.
Also see - Central & Arctic Region, Species Fact Sheet in PDF version
This charmingly ugly fish is found across the North Atlantic Ocean from north of Russia to the Scotian Shelf, off Nova Scotia. Its western Atlantic population declined dramatically during the 1980s—in part because the northern wolffish, while not sought after itself, is often caught by fishers seeking other catch. The population was observed to decline by more than 90 per cent from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.
Northern wolffish are pelagic fish—spending a great deal of its time swimming and feeding on moving creatures in open waters. In summer, mature females lay up to 30,000 extremely large eggs in a nest on the sea floor. Adult northern wolffish are observed to make limited movements and are non-migratory. The northern wolffish favours open continental-shelf water that is cold—usually between 2°C to 5°C—and mainly at depths between 400 and 1000 metres. The fish is thought to prefer a rocky or muddy sea floor but is found over all types of ocean bottoms.
The northern wolffish is thick and heavyset, with a large head and teeth at the front of the jaw that are smaller and sharper than the other two wolffish species found in Atlantic Canada. The shape and size of its mouth and teeth allow it to capture moving (pelagic) prey. It can grow to 145 centimetres in length and almost 20 kilograms in weight. The northern wolffish has a more uniform body colour than the other wolffish species, ranging from grey to dark chocolate, sometimes with a light violet sheen.
From the Grand Banks to Labrador Shelf, Northern wolffish declined by more than 90 per cent during the late 1970s early 1990s. The greatest decline was in the northern part of its range. While not a direct target of commercial fisheries, the northern wolffish is often caught incidentally in other fisheries. It does not have commercial value and is discarded, but some may not survive. Bottom trawling for fish may also disrupt their environment.
The northern wolffish is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). A recovery team for the northern and spotted wolffish has completed a recovery strategy and plan for both species. The strategy provides a framework for improving the status of wolffish through an enhanced understanding of their life history, potential sources of harm, and implementing management measures such as live release of captured wolffish. The plan also includes habitat stewardship and educational activities designed to involve stakeholders and inform the public.
Northern wolffish will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Each and every one of us has a responsibility to ensure that we do everything possible to protect and recover all species at risk. Find out more about northern wolffish, take active steps to protect its habitat, and get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.