Imagine you’re fishing somewhere off the California coast and you hook into a big one. You finally hoist the monster to the deck and discover it’s nearly three feet long, brilliant red-orange in color, with bright yellow eyes the size of fifty cent pieces. Hard to imagine this fish could have been swimming around in the ocean when Roosevelt was president−not Franklin (1933-1945), but Teddy (1901-1909)! Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus) are known to live up to 118 years. Very slow growing, they don’t reach sexual maturity until they’re between ten and twenty years old.
Yelloweye rockfish are one of over fifty species of the genus Sebastes living off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. Rockfish species generally share these characteristics: They dwell on or near the ocean bottom; they’re long lived; they’re slow growing and take a long time to reach sexual maturity; they’re beautifully colored; and they’re quite delicious.
Baby boomers like me remember when everyone ate meat−nothing like a big, juicy steak or hamburger on the barbeque grill to stimulate the appetite. Sometime in the late seventies or early eighties, our diets evolved to include fish, touted as a healthier alternative to red meat.
With modern harvest and transportation methods, big-time commercial operators weren’t just supplying Americans markets; they were also shipping fresh fish to faraway countries like Japan, where it was sold at premium prices. The race was on to exploit the vast marine resources lying off our Pacific Coast and reap the benefits. Just about everything caught could be marketed and sold to someone. If it wasn’t eaten by humans, it could be made into cat food or ground up and turned into fertilizer.
Commercial catches were regulated in terms of tonnage, not in terms of individual fish, like sport fishermen. Longliners might use up to five lines, each with a hundred or more baited hooks attached. The lines, which can span several miles, would lie on or near the ocean bottom, with weights on both ends. Trawlers, on the other hand, would drag huge nets along the ocean floor and haul up whatever marine life happened to be there at the time. Both methods targeted so-called groundfish, which included rockfish, flounders, lingcod, cabezon, leopard sharks, and many other bottom-dwelling species.
Groundfish are managed by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Regulations set by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council are then adopted and enforced by the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. Sometime around the year 2000, federal fisheries regulators finally came to the conclusion that certain rockfish species had been drastically overfished and their populations had plummeted to dangerously low levels. Slow to reach sexual maturity, many rockfish were being caught before they were able to reproduce. It was estimated that Pacific Coast stocks of yelloweye rockfish, which had been marketed as “red snapper,” could take many decades to recover−even under the most ideal conditions. Canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) were pretty much in the same boat−figuratively and literally−along with cowcod rockfish (Sebastes levis).
So, what should the regulators−those folks in charge of managing our fisheries resources−do to make sure we have healthy fish populations and healthy ocean ecosystems? With sport fishing, it’s relatively easy: The take or possession of certain protected (“overfished”) species should be prohibited until those fish stocks recover. If a sport fisherman catches a protected species, he should be required to return it to the water, unharmed. This isn’t quite as simple as it might seem, which I will explain later.
Regulating commercial bottom trawling and longlining is an entirely different can of worms. Neither commercial fishing method is capable of discriminating between protected (“overfished”) species and more plentiful, unprotected species. Imagine a bottom trawl net as wide as a football field being dragged across the ocean floor. Everything in its path is scooped up and brought to the surface, whether it be a fish, crab, sea turtle, seabird, dolphin, shell, or rock. The sea floor is also dramatically altered in the process. According to the National Academy of Sciences, 231,000 square miles of ocean floor off the U.S. coast−an area roughly the size of California−have been altered by bottom trawling.
I asked a retired Fish and Game marine patrol officer who had overseen commercial fishing operations for thirty years to explain how bottom trawlers and longliners are regulated.
“It’s referred to as incidental, not accidental, catch,” he said. “Fisheries regulators call it ‘bycatch.’ Commercial fishermen are restricted regarding protected species like yelloweye and canary rockfish, yet large numbers of these fish are still taken as bycatch.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” I said. “Don’t these protected species end up dying anyway?”
“Regulators make it sound soft, by calling it ‘discard.’ A commercial fisherman might say, ‘It’s not my fault, I’m targeting legal fish. What am I supposed to do?'”
“Sounds to me like all of these depleted rockfish populations could end up being wiped out like the Atlantic cod on the East Coast.”
“Bottom line is, there has always been discard in those types of fisheries. It generally occurs out at sea, so few people see it happening. Sometimes species comingle. The trawlers or longliners may be targeting widow rockfish and end up catching a bunch of yelloweyes.”
Federal and state fisheries regulators have attempted to limit further damage to seriously diminished rockfish stocks and other marine resources by establishing marine protected areas (MPAs), groundfish management areas, and rockfish management areas along the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. Sport fishermen are subject to protected species restrictions, new bag limits, depth restrictions, season closures, and area closures. Commercial fishermen are subject to area closures, depth restrictions, gear restrictions, season closures, and specific conditions listed on their commercial permits. Based on what I’ve learned from my research, it’s an incredibly complicated patchwork of federal and state regulations, which makes it difficult for both the fishermen and enforcement officers.
If we hope to save yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish, cowcod rockfish, and other depleted groundfish species for future generations to enjoy, I strongly believe we need to do more.
Sport fishermen must learn the regulations and strictly abide by them. That means being able to identify the fish they catch, so they know which ones they can keep and which ones they have to return to the water. As I mentioned earlier, simply throwing protected fish back isn’t always enough. Fish that have been brought up from the depths can suffer from a condition called barotrauma (with their eyes bulging and their swim bladders swollen/popped out). If thrown back without assistance, they may flounder at the surface until they’re dead or preyed upon by gulls and sea lions. A number of manufactured devices are available to assist in the return of these fish to the ocean bottom.
Sport fishermen also need to know bag and possession limits, depth restrictions, season closures, and area closures. Anyone fishing from a boat at sea would be way ahead of the game by becoming familiar with the GPS navigation system, so they can readily identify closed areas.
Commercially, I believe we need to make it easier for fishermen to transition from bottom trawls and longlines to more discriminating and closely-monitored harvest methods, such as handlines and rod and reel. These are continually monitored and can be designed to target specific species. If a protected (“overfished”) species is caught, it has a better chance of being returned to the water, unharmed. Consumers can also encourage the transition to more sustainable forms of fishing by asking restaurants and fish markets how their fish are caught, and by choosing fish caught with handlines or rod and reel. If you’re hungry for rockfish, choose the more plentiful black rockfish (Sebastes melanops).
In the long term, all of the recommendations in the world won’t save our ocean resources without adequate enforcement. California, with over thirty-eight million people, has a grossly inadequate number of boats and full-time marine patrol officers (approximately 70 wardens and lieutenants) patrolling offshore and along our 1,100-mile coastline. We need twice as many boats and twice as many officers. Every one of those officers must be totally dedicated to the protection of our marine resources and well-schooled in the incredibly complicated areas of commercial regulations, commercial permit requirements, and corresponding issues.
Hey, I enjoy a seafood dinner as much as the next guy. Conducting business as usual, however, is not sustainable for the world’s fisheries, or for us.
This piece originally appeared in my April 24, 2014 “On Patrol” column at MyOutdoorBuddy.com.