NOAA Fisheries completes recovery plan for Puget Sound/Georgia Basin rockfish

October 2017

NOAA Fisheries has finalized a recovery plan for the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin Distinct Population Segments of yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio, providing a roadmap for restoring sustainable rockfish populations that will benefit the region and the ecosystem and provide further fishing opportunities.

Captain Jay Field of Dash One Charters and NOAA biologist Kelly Andrews prepare to release a 37-centimeter (14.6 inches) sub-adult yelloweye rockfish caught in a genetics study in Washington's San Juan Islands in April 2014. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/NWFSC

Over the past fifty years many populations of rockfish declined within Puget Sound and the Georgia Basin, which includes the waters inside of Vancouver Island. NOAA Fisheries listed yelloweye rockfish as threatened and bocaccio as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010.

A recovery team consisting of NOAA Fisheries, the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, University of Washington, and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife scientists developed a plan under the ESA to provide a comprehensive blueprint for recovery. The plan incorporates additional research on the population status of the species and the magnitude of various threats.

A juvenile yelloweye rockfish in Puget Sound. Photo: courtesy of Janna Nichols

NOAA Fisheries and Washington State scientists have conducted important cooperative research with recreational anglers to assess population genetics. They have also employed Remotely Operated Vehicle surveys to develop population estimates.

NOAA Fisheries shared a draft version of the plan in August 2016 with peer reviewers and the public.  The final plan incorporates input from experts, other agencies, conservation and angler groups, and other comments received on the draft.

Adult yelloweye rockfish as seen during an underwater survey by a remotely operated vehicle. Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Yelloweye rockfish can live over 150 years and bocaccio can live over 50 years.  These fish use virtually every habitat in Puget Sound, from the open water as larvae, to the nearshore as juveniles, to very deep water as adults. Because of this, a sustained and comprehensive effort is needed to give these fish the best chance to recover,” said Dan Tonnes, NOAA Fisheries Recovery Coordinator.   

Though historical overfishing mainly drove the decline of yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio in the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin, some uncertainty surrounds the relative impact of today’s fisheries on the species.  While there is no directed fishing for them, they can be incidentally caught when fishermen pursue other species.   Washington State officials have taken regulatory measures over the last several decades to protect all rockfish, including a commercial ban on rockfish fishing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a 2010 moratorium on recreational rockfish catch, and a 120-foot depth limit while bottom fishing to reduce accidental catch of rockfish.

In 2007, the Canadian government designated approximately 135 rockfish conservation areas that encompass 30 percent of the inside waters of Vancouver Island.  The NOAA Fisheries recovery plan calls for assessing the effectiveness of such conservation areas, which will inform consideration of additional protections for rockfish in Puget Sound.

The recovery plan also outlines strategies to assess and reduce other threats to the species including degraded water quality and habitat, contaminants, derelict fishing gear, and predation.  The plan includes strategies to address each of the threats through an adaptive management framework that tailors recovery approaches as research reveals more about the species.

Education and outreach to the public is also an important component of the recovery effort.  Examples include working with partners to help scuba divers collect science data (also known as “citizen science”) and outreach to anglers to help protect rockfish from barotrauma, which can injure or kill fish reeled up from deep waters. Anglers can avoid lasting injury to fish by using devices that quickly lower fish back into the depths, as described on NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region recreational fisheries page.

The recovery plan also calls for developing educational materials for students and their families to help raise awareness and build support for recovery of rockfish.  For example, NOAA Fisheries has developed a poster for classrooms around the region and is working on a children’s book that explores species of rockfish and their role in the ecosystem.

NOAA Fisheries developed the plan with several partners and will pursue the strategies in partnership with the government of Canada, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies, regional tribes, other federal agencies and the fishing industry.

FOR MORE INFORMATION on rockfish recovery in Puget Sound, including the final recovery plan, please visit: http://www.westcoast.fisheries.noaa.gov/protected_species/rockfish/rockfish_in_puget_sound.html

Homepage photo: NOAA Fisheries