Atlantic Wolffish

  • Scientific name: Anarhichas lupus
  • Also known as: Wolf Eel, Sea Wolf, Sea Cat, Devil Fish, Ocean Catfish, Atlantic Catfish, Woof Fish. When sold to the public as a food fish it may be known as Scotch Halibut, Woof or Scarborough Woof.
  • Size: Up to 5ft and 50lbs, although most are smaller than this.
  • UK minimum size: N/a
  • UK shore caught record: 12lb 12oz
  • IUCN Status:
    • Global: NE (Not Evaluated)
    • Europe: DD (Data Deficient)
  • Distribution: Found on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. In European waters they are found from Scandinavian waters down to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Feeds on: Crabs, lobsters, starfish, sea urchins, prawns and shellfish.
  • Description: Long, cylindrical eel like body. Single dorsal fin is long and runs the whole length of the body. Anal fin is around two-thirds the length of the dorsal. Tail fin is small. Eyes are small and large mouth is filled with an extensive array of sharp fangs and crushing molar teeth. Unusually blueish colour, although this can vary to brownish, greyish or other colours. A number of darker bars run down the flanks. Colour fades to a dull grey when the fish is dead and removed from the sea.
Atlantic wolffish area somewhat fearsome looking species which has sadly had its numbers depleted over recent decades, meaning it is now a very rare catch for the shore angler. It is edible and has commercial value, although its many names (and the fact that it is often only sold as pre-prepared fillets) mean that few members of the public are aware of the species they are consuming when they eat this fish.


Atlantic Wolffish Distribution

Worldwide distribution of the Atlantic Wolffish.

Atlantic wolffish are, as the name implies, found across the Northern Atlantic. In European waters they are found from the cold waters of the Barents and Kara Sea through the Norwegian Sea and the western parts of the Baltic Sea. Their range extends through the North Sea and the waters surrounding the British Isles and down to the Atlantic coasts of France and Portugal. The are at the edge of their southwards distribution in along the coast of Portugal and are found in limited numbers in the western Mediterranean. They are found across the Atlantic in Icelandic and Greenlandic waters and are present along the eastern coastline of the United States and Canada.

Habitat, Feeding and Behaviour

Atlantic Wolffish Skull

The Skull of an Atlantic Wolffish, showing the teeth and powerful jaws.

This species prefers fairly deep water of at least thirty metres and favour rocky and broken ground which provides them with cracks and crevices to hide inside. They are usually solitary fish, although, as they are not territorial, rocky areas containing  number of suitable hiding places may several Atlantic wolffish. Atlantic wolffish are so called due to their teeth which resemble those of a wolf. They have four to six prominent fang-like teeth at the front of their mouth, with several rows of blunt, crushing molars further back in their mouth. The Atlantic wolfish feeds primarily on shellfish and crustaceans using its powerful teeth and jaws to crunch through the shells of these creatures. They will also feed on other bottom dwelling sea life such as sea urchins, starfish and brittle stars, and are thought to only hunt other fish occasionally. Although armed with these powerful teeth and jaws, Atlantic wolffish are not dangerous to humans and are thought to be shy, reclusive creatures. They have been observed swimming away from divers who have come across them. However, they will snap with their teeth to defend themselves when removed from the water.


Atlantic wolffish have an unusual reproductive pattern. They breed in the autumn, with the eggs being internally fertilised by the female which is rare in the marine world. The eggs are then laid on the seabed and the male will stay nearby and guard the eggs until they catch, which may take several weeks or even months. Atlantic wolffish are not thought to reproduce until they are between eight and ten years old.

Additional Species of Wolffish

There are two other species of wolffish which are found in British and Irish waters: the spotted wolffish (Anarhichas minor) which is also known as spotted catfish, and the Northern wolffish (Anarhichas denticulatus) which is also known as the Arctic wolffish, bull-head wolffish and blue catfish. Both of these species have a similar distribution to the Atlantic wolffish and can reach lengths of up to 6ft (180cm) and weights of more than 60lb. They also have similar feeding habits and spawning patterns as the Atlantic wolffish. Both of these species of wolffish have also suffered from a significant decline in abundance.
Wolffish Species

A diagram taken from the American publication Oceanic ichthyology : a treatise on the deep-sea and pelagic fishes of the world, published in 1896. Atlantic wolffish (Anarhichas lupus) is shown at the top, spotted wolffish (Anarhichas minor) is the middle picture and the Northen wolffish (Anarhichas denticulatus) is pictured at the bottom.

There are a number of different ways of distinguishing the species. Atlantic wolffish generally have vertical bars or stripes on their flanks, while the spotted wolffish has, as one may expect, a spotted pattern across its body. The northern wolffish has a more uniform colour, sometimes with a slight marbled or speckled pattern. It also usually has a fatter, almost bloated body, when compared to the generally slimmer body of the other two species.

Commercial Value and Conservation Status

Atlantic wolffish is commercially valuable and is sold as a food fish. It is seen in fish and chip shops, particularly in the north of England, where it may be referred to as Scotch halibut, woof, Scarborough woof or woof-fish. It is also sold on fresh fish counters, but it is almost always sold as skinned and boned fillets, rather than as a full fish as consumers would be put off by the appearance of this species. They are also a source of high-quality fish oil and the skin can be turned into a type of leather.

Atlantic Wolffish

Atlantic wolffish inhabit deep-water rocky and broken ground.

Atlantic wolffish are not specifically targeted by commercial vessels but are caught and retained as bycatch in trawls, and larger specimens are caught on long-lines. Modern industrial fishing methods have severely reduced wolffish numbers, not just by catching the fish but also by destroying the habitat, nests and breeding grounds of the wolffish through intensive, repeated bottom trawling. American catches of Atlantic wolffish have declined from over 1200 tons per year in the 1980s to around 30 tons per year in the 2000s. The relatively late breeding age of the wolffish, and fairly large size it needs to reach before becoming sexually mature mean that stocks will take a long time to recover, even if commercial fishing pressure is eased. The United States National Marine Fisheries Service classes Atlantic Wolffish as a species of concern, while the IUCN has not carried out a full assessment of this species (it is currently classified as Not Evaluated globally and Data Deficient in Europe) it will almost certainly be given a threatened status once a full stock assessment has been carried out. Sadly the situation is similar for the two other wolffish species. The spotted wolffish is classed as Near Threatened in European waters and the Northern wolffish is classed as Endangered, meaning it has a high risk of extinction in the wild.

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