March 13, 2010

Group says fierce-looking wolffish needs saving

— The Associated Press

A ferocious-looking, deep-water fish that can gobble up whole urchins and crabs in a few swift chomps needs protection, according to a petition filed with the federal government.

The Conservation Law Foundation asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday to list the Atlantic wolffish -- a species with large protruding teeth and a face that's downright ugly -- as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The fish, also called an ocean catfish, is under pressure from commercial and recreational fishermen and could be wiped out if nothing is done, the Boston-based conservation group said.

''The fishing pressure is going to continue to haunt this fish right down to extinction unless something is done,'' said Peter Shelley, CLF vice president.

The slow-growing, late-maturing wolffish lives along the rocky ocean bottom in 250- to 400-foot deep waters off New England. It can grow to 5 feet long and weigh up to 40 pounds. Its powerful jaws and teeth can crush lobsters, urchins, clams, scallops and crabs.

Although the fish aren't targeted by commercial fishermen, fishing nets and dredges dragged along the ocean bottom have destroyed much of their habitat, diminishing both their numbers and range, according to the conservation group.

Although the fish is ugly, it is tasty and can be found at some seafood retailers and on the menus of upscale restaurants, Shelley said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has listed the fish as a ''species of concern,'' calling the stock overexploited and severely depleted.

If the fish is given endangered status, it could result in additional restrictions on New England fishermen, who are already tightly regulated on when and where they can fish.

The conservation group says efforts to reduce wolffish mortality could range from throwing them back to area closures.

''They always have to find something to go after us,'' said Angela Sanfilippo, executive director of the Massachusetts Fishermen's Partnership in Gloucester, Mass.

Fishermen might be surprised to learn there's a shortage of wolffish because they appear plentiful in nets, Sanfilippo said.

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