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Rockfish make a remarkable recovery off California coast, prompting federal officials to raise catch limits

Rockfish make a remarkable recovery off California coast, prompting federal officials to raise catch limits
Federal officials announced sweeping actions that will lift restrictions on commercial and recreational fishing of (clockwise from top left) California scorpionfish, Pacific Ocean perch, boccaccio and yelloweye rockfish off the Pacific coast. (NOAA Fisheries / Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Locally caught red snapper was once a staple on Southern California menus and a vital part of the state’s fishing industry. But overfishing took its toll, resulting in federal restrictions nearly two decades ago to prevent their extinction.

But with stocks rebuilding faster than anticipated, federal officials on Tuesday boosted catch limits by more than 100% for some species of rockfish in a move they said would help revive West Coast bottom trawlers and sportfishing fleets.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s action is expected to result in anglers taking about 218,000 additional annual trips in coastal waters — about 148,000 of them between Santa Barbara and San Diego.

Officials say the move could generate an estimated 900 jobs and up to $54 million in annual revenue in West Coast states in 2019, including about 630 jobs and $44 million in Southern California. It may also put fresh, locally caught varieties of rockfish commonly sold as red snapper back on dinner plates in Southern California restaurants, which currently rely almost entirely on frozen seafood imported from Mexico and around the world.

“The rebuilding of these stocks also means the rebuilding of West Coast communities and economies that sacrificed for years waiting for the rockfish populations to come back,” said Barry Thom, regional administrator of fisheries for NOAA’s West Coast region. “Now, fleets can catch even more fish because they will be less constrained overall by limits on these stocks.”

In 2019, the annual catch limit for California scorpionfish, also known as sculpin, will rise from 150 metric tons to 313 metric tons, or 108%; for yelloweye rockfish from 20 metric tons to 40 metric tons, or 100%; for boccaccio, once considered a candidate for the endangered species list, from 741 metric tons to 2,097 metric tons, or 183%; and for Pacific Ocean perch from 281 metric tons to 4,340 metric tons, or 1,444%.

Behind those increases, federal scientists say, is a better understanding about the flows of oceanic currents and the biological rhythms of populations so overfished that scientists once predicted it would take nearly a century for some of them to recover.

“Our perception of low productivity among rockfish in the 1990s was tailored by poor oceanic conditions at that time,” said John Field, a federal researcher at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz. “But our population models back then didn’t account for what turned out to be a banner year for recruitment of young fish in 1999,” as well as in later years.

“All those young fish combined with strict fisheries management actions imposed earlier,” he added, “led many species of rockfish, but not all 80 or so of them, to a trajectory of remarkable success.”

Some rockfish restrictions will remain pending further research, such as those limiting cow cod, which is prized for its delicate white flesh. However, fishermen will be allowed to target other species of rockfish in the Cow Cod Conservation Area about 60 miles off the Southern California coast.

The actions, along with NOAA’s order earlier this year to reopen 3,000 miles of closed areas to bottom trawling in 2020, were applauded by Lori Steele, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Assn. The challenge now, she said, will be “winning back shelf space that was taken over by imported fish.”

“We’re trying to come up with ways to make California consumers aware that they will soon have seafood options from the West Coast,” she said. “It will be a little bit more expensive because we’re going to have to rebuild West Coast markets.”

“I expect to see more people on charter boats fishing in deeper water next year,” said Gerry Richter of Santa Barbara, who represents hook-and-line fishermen on a federal rockfish advisory panel.

Scientists and fishermen began sounding warnings about declining West Coast stocks in the 1970s, a time when rockfish had become a favorite standby of charter and private fishing boats because “glamour” fish such as salmon, albacore and barracuda were not biting.

Fishery managers responded with reductions in catch limits that took an economic toll. Coastal communities lost fishing businesses and workers, including experienced cutters and trimmers. Potential locations for processing centers in areas such as Morro Bay and Monterey Bay were bought and turned into real estate developments.

Hundreds of feet beneath the waves, natural reef systems as far as 60 miles from the coast were essentially denuded of once robust populations of rockfish. Their numbers had plunged dramatically because of commercial and recreational fishing, which removed nearly all of the mature fish.

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After decades of little management, tough federal laws and a series of courtroom victories by environmentalists forced federal officials in 2002 to order a halt in commercial fishing for rockfish off much of the California coast.

Of 16 types of rockfish assessed at the time, biologists determined that nine suffered from excessive harvesting. Numbers of boccaccio, for example, had plummeted by 95%.

Rockfish thrive when conditions are ideal for spawning: cold water rich in plankton. Some live as long as 150 years, scientists say, which enables them to survive downturns in their environment not conducive to breeding.

Rockfish of different sizes, age groups and species can congregate together. As a result, fishermen could not easily target specific kinds of rockfish without also catching breeding stock or other species. When pulled up from the crushing depths, their internal bladder expands, causing tissue damage that makes survival difficult if they’re tossed back into the water.

New research based on data gathered over the last two decades suggests that rockfish populations are far more resilient than scientists understood when they were advising federal fisheries managers to declare large tracts of the coastal Pacific off-limits.

For example, rockfish browsing eelgrass and rocky reefs experience conditions that at times are independent of the physical and biological dynamics occurring near the surface, where temperatures have been steadily warming.

A recent study by NOAA and UC Santa Cruz suggests that rockfish population growth corresponds to currents of cooler, fresher and oxygen-rich Pacific subarctic water. By comparison, years of low rockfish abundance are associated with warmer, more saline and oxygen-deficient conditions that arrive with currents of subtropical and equatorial origin.

The differing environment far below the surface helps explain, Field said, why scientists noted a surprisingly high abundance of juvenile rockfish despite a marine heat wave between 2014 and 2016 influenced by an El Niño event during winter months.

“Our science has improved a lot over the past 20 years,” Field said. “We also have better monitoring programs and laws that can be enforced if we do overfish and have to rebuild stocks again.”

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Critics are not so sure. Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach and expert on rockfish, questioned the decision to raise harvesting quotas by more than 100% rather than by incremental amounts, depending on the effects of increased fishing activity. Of particular concern are higher catch limits for species such as scorpionfish, which congregate in large groups while spawning, making them vulnerable to population crashes when harvested.

Others wonder why potential effects of climate change were not mentioned in federal documents supporting the actions.

But Shems Jud, an attorney with the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and an advisor to federal officials on rockfish and the commercial fishing industry, is optimistic about the changes but says their effect on populations should be closely monitored.

“I do think the Trump administration is trying to increase domestic production of seafood,” Jud said. “What’s wrong with that? We’d be hard pressed to find a better source of protein.”

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