Atlantic Butterfish by Bottom Trawl

Northeast Atlantic — Multi-Species Groundfish Area


Atlantic Butterfish


Jan 01 - Dec 31

Bottom Trawl

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.

Harvesting Method

Bottom Trawl

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.

Bottom Trawl

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.

Conservation Measures

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:

  • annual coastwide quota which is divided into trimester allocations
  • possession limits for each trip
  • regulation of mesh sizes for nets which changes possession limits
  • limitation on the number and size of licensed fishing vessels in the fishery
  • requirement to maintain on board and submit vessel trip reports for all fishing trips, regardless of species caught
  • area closures for conservation purposes

In this lobster fishing area, fish harvesters actively participate in scientific data collection and research such as:

  • a comprehensive data collection system on catches
  • scientific sampling of lobsters at sea
  • maintaining catch logbooks and scientific field notebooks

Northeast Atlantic


FishWatch - Click for status

Seafood Watch - Good Alternative


Jan 01 - Dec 31


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.

Quality and Handling

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.

Harvesting Area

Atlantic butterfish are managed as part of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Area extending from Maine to North Carolina. 


Food Info Atlantic Butterfish


  • Colour: white
  • Texture: delicate and tender
  • Flavour: rich, oily and flavourful
  • Perfect serve: An excellent pan fish, butterfish is usually gutted with the head and skin left on. Small fish can be dipped whole in flour and deep fried. Larger fish can be split, then broiled, baked, grilled, or sautéed. The flesh turns white and opaque when cooked.