Article: Catch Haddock

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Massachusetts Saltwater Fishing

Anglers and researchers on charter trips used to validate the avoidance maps caught lots of healthy haddock like those pictured above.

If you’ve ever had the chance to get offshore and catch some of the diverse groundfish that inhabit our waters, you know how fun it can be. Haddock are currently at a record high abundance in the Gulf of Maine, which means it’s pretty easy to experience some great fishing and take home a cooler full of tasty fillets.

Unfortunately, the cod population is near an historic low and recreational harvest for this species has been prohibited for the past several years. Even so, it is still common for haddock anglers to also catch cod (“bycatch”) because they share a similar habitat, and the bulk of the remaining cod stock is centered on some popular haddock fishing grounds. This presents a major problem because recent studies have shown that roughly 15% of the cod thrown overboard end up dying soon after release. Recreational cod bycatch is now a leading source of mortality for cod in the Gulf of Maine, and unless we work together to reduce this, federal fishery managers may be forced to limit access to the abundant haddock stock.

Over the past several years, the data collected as part of the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) have shown that private boat anglers have had a hard time avoiding cod when targeting haddock in the Gulf of Maine. Recognizing that catching any kind of fish is always fun, and it is often difficult to “leave fish to find fish”, it is important that we as recreational anglers find ways to reduce our cod bycatch to support the rebuilding of this species.

To address this issue, DMF and collaborators began a project in 2019 to direct anglers to areas with good haddock fishing, but lower cod bycatch. Using data from an industry-based trawl survey, we created a spatial model to predict the catch rate of cod and haddock in the parts of the Gulf of Maine most frequently visited by recreational anglers. This model compared the observed catch from over 1,000 tows with three environmental factors: depth, bottom temperature, and seafloor complexity. This allowed us to predict the density of cod and haddock throughout the fishing season. We then created maps for each month, May through September, that identify areas to target (green = high haddock catch; low cod bycatch) and to avoid (red = low haddock catch; high cod bycatch). To offer proof that they can work, our research team spent last summer working with local charter boats to validate these guidance maps. This involved fishing with standardized tackle in both red and green areas in each month, and recording the catch rates of all species captured. In total, we made 80 trips, fished at 600+ locations with more than 200 anglers, and caught over 10,000 fish! After accounting for the effects of angler experience and bait type, here is what we found: Green areas had a 31% lower cod bycatch rate, and a 15% higher catch rate of keeper-sized haddock. In other words: they work! To make the maps more useful for recreational anglers, we overlaid the red & green guidance areas onto a high-resolution bathymetric map of the seafloor.

Map booklets are available for free at DMF permit offices, tackle shops, and at fishing and boating shows. They can also be downloaded for free using a smartphone/tablet app (Avenza maps) from both the Apple and Google Play stores. This smartphone app uses your phone’s GPS to pinpoint your location on the map, and allows you to zoom in, and navigate to different locations.

Rules to Fish By

If you are fishing for haddock and you start catching cod, try moving to a new spot a short distance away. That may seem like a difficult choice, particularly if you’ve just finished a long boat ride and finally started catching fish. Cod have a more patchy distribution than haddock, and sometimes moving less than a ¼ mile will move you off the school of cod and onto a more consistent haddock bite. Keep in mind that any time you spend reeling up, unhooking, and throwing back cod takes away from your haddock catch rate.

Recent research has shown that using baited hooks instead of a jig will give you a 2.5 times greater chance of catching haddock. In addition, circle hooks provide a small advantage over traditional “J”-hooks, particularly if you’re new to groundfishing. They don’t require the traditional “hook set” where you jerk the rod to hook the fish. Simply wait until you feel a bite and just start reeling. This will cause the hook to set itself and only requires that you continue reeling the fish with constant pressure to the surface. Once you’ve landed the fish, if it’s not the desired species or of legal size, get it back into the water as quickly as possible so that it continues to grow and hopefully reproduce.

A map sample showing areas with higher abundance of legal haddock and lower cod bycatch (green) and lower numbers of legal haddock with higher cod bycatch (red).