Outside Yelloweye.

Last week I wrote about halibut and the emerging recreational fishery management regime for 2017. Despite some, admittedly small, uncertainty around what the regulations might be after the start of the new license year April 1, halibut are a good news story compared to the topic of this column.

The header for this column is “Outside Yelloweye” which for the uninitiated might require an explanation and I’ll start with the second word first. Yelloweye refers to yelloweye rockfish, one of the three-dozen members of the Sebastes family of fishes. These are widely distributed on the Pacific coast of North America from Baja California all the way to western Alaska, although some individual species have more specific geographic ranges.

Outside in this context refers to the entire British Columbia coastline excepting those waters between the east coast of Vancouver Island and the mainland, from Queen Charlotte Strait through the Strait of Georgia and on to Juan de Fuca Strait. Despite no observable external differences, biosampling studies enabling DNA analysis have found that yelloweye rockfish in each of these two very large areas are in fact genetically distinct and so are managed as separate stocks. Management of inside yelloweye was changed dramatically some dozen years ago as part of the inside rockfish aggregate when a combination of much reduced fishing harvest and a series of Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCA’s) was introduced.

Because rockfish are described as a sedentary species, which is to say non-migratory, these sanctuary areas in which no hook and line fishing for any species by any harvest group is allowed are designed to act as a seed bank for the surrounding area as buoyant eggs and tiny juveniles are unwittingly distributed further afield by currents away from the RCA. Although there are a number of RCA’s located on the outside BC coast by far the largest number are found around the inside, in response to the severity of the conservation issue there.

Apart from having a sedentary life history other key features of rockfish are slow growth, long-lived (yelloweye have been aged to 120+ years old) and late to mature (often 10-15 years old as maiden spawners), with perhaps the most challenging characteristic being that rockfish suffer from barotrauma, the inability to quickly expel gases in the body that expand as the rockfish are brought up from depth. This frequently causes the swim bladder to get pushed out of the throat and eyes to bulge out of their sockets, crippling the fish. Even if caught as unintended by-catch and released, the saying is that a caught rockfish is a dead rockfish for precisely these reasons.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) gets condemned for all manner of management failings for the fin and shellfish species for which it is responsible for, occasionally unfairly so but unfortunately more frequently with some justification. And as someone who has spent more than three decades taking part in recreational and multi-sectoral fishery advisory processes to the department I am convinced that its worst failure relates to the management of rockfish. Having allowed through gross overfishing the severe depletion of inside rockfish in the 1980/90’s, requiring draconian restrictions to literally save the species in the early part of this century, once again DFO has allowed much the same thing to occur in outside waters, with yelloweye rockfish in the process of becoming the key focus there.

The management challenge for rockfish in outside BC waters is greater than around the inside for a number of reasons – a much larger area, more diverse habitat, a greater number and diversity of high powered fisheries that encounter rockfish and, even now, a greater rockfish abundance in aggregate. However, enough stock assessment has been done to demonstrate that outside yelloweye rockfish are greatly overfished and the harvest must be curtailed, and fast.

DFO staff have calculated that a sustainable all-fishery harvest of outside yelloweye is 100 metric tons (MT) a year but that the recent year harvest is nearly three times that amount and included in that are about 35 MT taken for First Nations Food fisheries and in various test fisheries for a variety of groundfish. This total is unlikely to change, leaving about 65 MT of outside yelloweye for the combined commercial and recreational harvest. DFO believes that the recreational fishery takes about a fifth of the outside yelloweye harvest and, in the absence of an allocation policy between these two fisheries for rockfish, intends to split up the future allowable catch based on recent assessed catch shares. This means the recreational catch of yelloweye will have to be reduced from 55-65 MT annually down to 12-15 MT, and by 2019 as well.

Estimates of the recreational outside yelloweye catch are likely overstated because of the inability of many anglers to accurately identify rockfish by species. Indeed the catchall phrase “red snapper” is still commonly used by many to describe any kind of red or orange rockfish, despite the fact that there are no snapper on the BC coast. The yelloweye rockfish is well named because it does in fact have a distinct yellow band around the outer edge of the eye however a number of similar but different rockfish – canary, vermillion and aurora’s in particular – are frequently counted as yelloweye when they aren’t.

An additional challenge is that many rockfish, yelloweye included, are caught as by-catch to a different target species, usually halibut or lingcod. Populations of both species are in good shape, with important directed fisheries for them by all harvest groups. Rockfish by-catch when after halibut can be lowered by fishing non-rocky ground but lingcod prefer much the same habitat as rockfish and the gear for one is equally as effective as for the other.

At this point no decisions have been made but DFO groundfish staff have indicated that changes to reduce the recreational outside yelloweye harvest are going to occur soon. In the absence of any good options expect large reductions in rockfish retention limits and/or seasons and possibly reduced limits and/or seasons for lingcod in outside waters. Other ideas include a maximum depth restriction when fishing for any groundfish, already in effect along some parts of the US Pacific coast but hard to enforce.

Other than angler education the idea with the most promise is the use of descending devices e.g. the Seaqualizer ( https://seaqualizer.com/ ). Attached with a large weight to the end of a dedicated rod and line outfit, these allow for the return and release of rockfish at something close to their original capture depth in short order, mitigating the worst aspects of barotrauma. Their use to date has been limited but there is a growing body of data that indicates they can markedly improve the survival rate of released rockfish. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that such devices will soon become mandatory for any angler specifically fishing for any bottom fish, regardless of species.

So, to use an oft expressed phrase, if it’s not one thing then it’s the next and yelloweye rockfish along the BC outer coast are it for 2017 and the next few years. Stay tuned for updates on this evolving fishery management story.