Haddock have a similar shape when compared to other groundfish, like Atlantic cod, having three dorsal fins and two anal fins. They have distinguishable coloring with a silvery dark blue and purple-grey back, fading down to a lighter silver on the sides and a white belly. Haddock have a black lateral line down the length of their body and a prominent dark spot over their pectoral fin, sometimes called “The Devils Thumbprint”. Most haddock weigh between 2 and 7 pounds and are 14-23 inches long, however they do get bigger. The largest fish caught on record was 44 inches and weighed almost 40 pounds!
Where they live
In the Northwest Atlantic haddock can be found as far south as Cape May, NJ to the Strait of Belle Isle, Canada in the north. They are most common in the Gulf of Maine and across Georges Bank. Similar to other groundfish species haddock live near the ocean floor. Generally, haddock live in deeper waters ranging between 130 to 450 feet, with juveniles generally distributed to the shallower depths. The deepest recorded fish was caught in a Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) bottom trawl survey over 1000 feet deep!
Off Massachusetts, Georges Bank has the largest aggregation of spawning haddock, which breed starting in January continuing through June. Haddock spawn in the water column, away from the bottom, typically at 100-600 feet. An average female can lay 850,000 eggs in one year, but larger females can lay up to 3 million eggs! The eggs float, drifting along in the currents for 15 days until they hatch, then the larvae continue to drift for about three months before settling to the ocean floor. Haddock are usually 6 inches long by the time they’re a year old, and at age two they are roughly 12 inches long, at which point they are old enough to reproduce. Haddock begin feeding on small crustaceans called copepods shortly after hatching until they reach about 3 inches in length. They then transition to feeding on their adult diet, which is comprised of slow-moving invertebrates, such as brittle stars, sea stars, shrimp, sea worms, clams, crabs and sometimes squid. Haddock will feed on almost any invertebrate that they can root up from the seafloor and on the rare occasion small fin fish such as sand lance, herring and mackerel. Haddock predators include other groundfish such as cod, pollock, cusk and hakes, as well as spiny dogfish, skates and even grey seals.
A success story of fisheries management, haddock are currently experiencing a record abundance in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank.
Haddock are managed as two stocks in US waters, (1) the Gulf of Maine stock which ranges from north of Cape Cod to the Canadian border, including Stellwagen Bank, and (2) the Georges Bank stock which includes southern New England and the US area of Georges Bank. NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) manage haddock in federal waters through the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Similar to Atlantic cod, federal management includes collaboration with Canada on the Georges Bank stock which stretches across the international Hague Line into Canadian waters. The FMP requires certain management measures be in place such as permitting requirements, spawning area closures, minimum harvest size, accountability measures, and annual catch limits. MA Division of Marine Fisheries manages haddock fisheries in state waters, within three miles of shore.
Although haddock populations are healthy, populations of other groundfish like cod, yellowtail flounder, and windowpane flounder are more over-exploited. Therefore, commercial and recreation fishing quotas are often kept low or not reached because of bycatch or the accidental harvest of the less abundant species.
The most recent stock assessment in 2017 found neither stocks to be overfished and there is no overfishing occurring. The biomass of haddock is currently at an all-time high and is experiencing low mortality. MA Division of Marine Fisheries has confirmed the federal estimate of high haddock abundance in the Gulf of Maine through the second cod Industry-Based Survey (IBS2). Though the focus of IBS2 was Gulf of Maine cod, the survey collected information on a variety of species, including haddock. Data suggests Gulf of Maine haddock stock is expected to remain strong, offering increased fishing opportunities for recreational and commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Maine.
Due to their healthy population haddock have become a very popular target for recreational fisherman. Recreationally haddock are typically caught in waters 150-350 feet deep. The best technique for catching haddock is a simple baited hook rig. Baited hooks regularly outperform jigs, and in addition jigs cause more injuries to discarded fish. The best set up for fishing is a short heavy jigging rod and a high ratio reel set up with 50-60 lb braided line. Braided line has less stretch than monofilament, making it easier to feel subtle haddock bites. Attach a monofilament leader (about 10ft in length) to the end of the braided mainline to tie a high-low rig with baited circle hooks. Circle hooks perform better than traditional “J” hooks. Haddock will take clams, herring, or mackerel but, squid is the bait of choice. Squid stays on the hook longer which translates to less time checking your bait and more time fishing on the bottom.
Haddock meat is white with a somewhat sweet taste, firm yet tender, and has smaller flakes than cod. It is a very versatile fish which can be prepared and cooked in nearly any style, with popular preparations including fried for fish and chips and the classic baked haddock with bread crumbs. Massachusetts wild-caught haddock is a smart seafood choice available year-round because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under state and federal regulations.