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December 8, 2008

We have a problem: Fisheries are in decline worldwide, and we’re eating all of the BOFFFFs. Think you’ve never eaten a BOFFFF? Think again. BOFFFF stands for big, old, fat, fecund (which is another word for fertile), female fishes. In short, BOFFFFs are the All Stars of fish reproduction. And reproduction is what can keep a population, and our fisheries, alive.

When fish eggs hatch they turn into larvae. And fish larvae are essentially the popcorn of the sea–everything eats them. (In some cases, that includes adults of the same species.) Most fish overcome the “minor” challenge of having their babies eaten by producing lots of them–like millions of eggs at a time in the case of adult cod. So even if an individual larva faces incredibly long odds of making it into adulthood, multiplying those odds by a million or so means that at least one or two will make it.

Biologists have long known that big fish produce more eggs than little fish. In the old days (i.e. the 1990s), they figured that a big fish weighing four pounds produced the same number of eggs as four smaller fish, each weighing one pound. (In other words, they thought four pounds of fish, divided any way you wanted, produced a set number of eggs.) They were wrong. In the last decade, researchers like Steve Berkeley of UC Santa Cruz found that a single BOFFF rockfish actually produces more eggs than its equivalent weight of little rockfish.

So BOFFFFs are major baby makers–big whoop, so are bunnies–but they do more than just make lots of babies. BOFFFFs make better babies. BOFFFF larvae are more likely to survive than regular larvae. Dr. Berkeley looked at the yolk sacs (little globules of oil in the bellies of the larvae that offer a source of energy until the fish find food) of individual larva. He found that the yolk sacs from big, old, fat, fecund, female rockfish were bigger than the yolk sacs from regular rockfish larvae. And larvae with bigger yolk sacs are a whole lot less likely to starve than larvae with puny yolk sacs.

But really, how much of an impact do these fat lady-fishes and their super babies have on the health of a fishery? According to researchers from the University of Toronto, they can have a pretty effing big one. The researchers used a population model to compare two different fishing styles: old school (catch the big fish and throw the little ones back) versus new-age (catch the little fish and throw the BOFFFFs back). The idea behind the old school method (the one we still use today) is to keep the little fish in the ocean so they can reproduce while taking the big fish who have already reproduced multiple times. Well, guess what–we’ve been doing it wrong. It turns out that catching the little fish and letting the BOFFFFs go is a much more sustainable method of fishing.

Of course, we’ve been doing it wrong for so long that we’ve made a pretty big mess of things. Fishermen are always after “the big one” (very few fishermen boast about the smallest fish they ever caught), so that leaves us with oceans filled with little reject fish. Those little reject fish are the ones that grew slower, stayed small and reproduced at a younger age. And when baby-making time comes, the male little reject fish get together with the female little reject fish to make lots (but not as many as BOFFFFs would) of relatively wimpy (compared to BOFFFF babies) baby reject fish.

Those little reject fish aren’t gonna save our global fisheries crisis. We need to rethink the way we fish, because a BOFFFF in the sea is worth way more than two or three smaller fish in a net.

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