Northeast Atlantic — Multi-Species Groundfish Area
Fish harvesters drag a large cone-shaped net along the seafloor to catch Atlantic butterfish. The net is sunk and held open by two “otter boards” that look like large, heavy steel or wooden doors. As the net is towed at low speed, hydrodynamic forces push the boards outwards opening the mouth of the net and capturing fish in its path. The net is then hauled to the surface using hydraulic winches and a drum. A single tow can net thousands of butterfish along with incidental catch.
Also known as “dragging,” bottom trawling uses a large net made of polyethylene to catch fish. Steel or wooden doors spread the net open. Floats are attached to the upper mouth of the net to keep it open vertically and weighted “bobbins” are attached to the lower mouth to sink the net. The bobbins’ design depends on the terrain, varying from small rubber discs for smooth sandy seafloors to large metal balls for rough ground. Known as “rock hoppers,” bobbins lift the net over obstacles on the seafloor.
In New England, many different species are caught in bottom trawls. These include butterfish, black sea bass, haddock, pollock, yellowtail flounder, witch flounder, winter flounder, windowpane flounder, American plaice, Atlantic halibut, redfish, ocean pout and white hake. Most trawlers are federally permitted to catch multiple groundfish species. Some trawlers also have state permits to catch allocations in state waters.
Bottom trawls disturb habitat when dragged along the seabed, and impacts vary by sediment type and the trawl gear used. Undersized and unwanted species (bycatch) are also unintentionally caught.
The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service manage Atlantic butterfish fishery through a management plan that includes longfin squid and mackerel. A number of measures address conservation in this fishery, including:
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Atlantic butterfish, along with longfin squid and butterfish, are all managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and NOAA’s Fisheries Service under a single Fishery Management Plan. Visit NOAA’s Fisheries Service for the most recent management plan.
For stock status, visit the Northeast Regional Office of NOAA’s Fisheries Service.
Atlantic butterfish caught by trawls are hauled aboard and stored in ice or a mixture of ice and seawater. A group of trawlers operate as day-boats out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, although vessels can stay at sea for about a week.
Atlantic butterfish are managed as part of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Area extending from Maine to North Carolina.