Outside Yelloweye Rockfish

If you were to ask most anglers what they thought the most pressing “front burner” fisheries management issue is in 2017 I expect that they would answer with this or that salmon stock, depending on where they’re from or where they like to fish. Most years they would likely be right but not this time as a non-salmon issue has come quickly out of the background to claim this unwelcome distinction.

Not to make light of a serious issue but “it’s déjà vu all over again” as it concerns rockfish. Unlike the inside rockfish saga of the early 2000’s that dealt with all rockfish in aggregate the management issue now is primarily focused on one species on the outer BC coast, yelloweye rockfish, although measures enacted to address this will have implications for other rockfish species too. The area of concern is enormous, covering from Port Renfrew on southwest Vancouver Island right up to the Alaska border and everywhere in between, excepting most of the waters to the east of Vancouver Island as the BC yelloweye population has been analyzed with a finding that the inside and outside waters fish are genetically distinct. This isn’t to suggest that inside rockfish, yelloweye’s included, are in great shape, but after years of overfishing a sustainable management regime was finally put in place a dozen years ago.

Yelloweye’s are the most prized of the family made up of some three-dozen individual rockfish species. They grow the largest, potentially to 25 pounds, by being the longest-lived, having been aged to 140 years old. Many yelloweye’s are older than the fishermen who caught them. Like others in the rockfish family they suffer from the same life-history characteristics that make them so susceptible to overfishing – long lives, slow growth, intermittent reproductive success and a non-migratory nature. Most challenging of all, they are prone to barotrauma, the inability to rapidly expel expanding gas as they are brought up from depth, frequently causing extended swim bladders, eyes protruding from their sockets and other unseen ailments.

Despite these characteristics being known to science for many years the long-term management history by DFO of these fish can be summed up in one word – neglect. As with the story of inside waters rockfish management, yelloweye rockfish were always a feature of harvest since fisheries began but the catch levels didn’t really move beyond fairly sustainable levels until the 1980’s. Towards the end of that decade the commercial harvest of outside yelloweye really jumped up, exceeding 1,500 tons annually and peaking at 1,800 tons in 1990, before steadily declining. In recent years the all fishery catch of outside yelloweye’s is thought to average between 270-300 tons annually, of which the recreational share has been assessed at 55-60 tons.

Quite how accurate this estimate is is a matter of some debate but it’s the best available. Catch monitoring along much of the outer BC coast is less than comprehensive, especially outside the core summer months. As well angler rockfish ID is frequently less than correct, with any red/orange rockfish often tagged with the generic and inaccurate title of “red snapper”. I’m not alone in thinking that species misidentification has erroneously inflated the yelloweye rockfish count in the recreational fishery. The species is well named because unlike other similar looking species such as Canary, Vermillion and Aurora rockfish it has a distinct and unique yellow circle around the outer edge of their eyes, the signature characteristic as it were. In any event, a rockfish species identification campaign should be a key feature of any future recovery plan.

While DFO hasn’t been doing its job until fairly recently others have been, notably the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an at-arms-length from government organization with responsibilities linked to Canada’s federal Species At Risk Act (SARA). COSEWIC first reviewed the status of the outside yelloweye rockfish in 2008, declaring it to be of Special Concern, and these fish were similarly listed under SARA in 2011. COSEWIC will again be reviewing the outside yelloweye stock, in 2018, and there is real possibility they will be downgraded to Endangered status, with management implications for all fisheries that impact them that are truly concerning to contemplate.

In the meantime DFO is getting serious about minimizing the catch of outside yelloweye rockfish going forward and has set an all fishery harvest cap of 100 tons per year as the target. The recent year estimated catch of First Nations FSC fish and those taken in assessment fisheries, primarily for other species like halibut, is about 30 tons and given their priority is unlikely to change, leaving approximately 70 tons for both the commercial and recreational fisheries combined.

In the absence of any allocation policy between the sectors for groundfish other than halibut, DFO has determined that this will be divided up on the basis of the recent decade catch share averages, meaning the target for the recreational fishery is 12-14 tons. Groundfish management customarily uses tons rather than numbers of fish as a metric when referring to harvest, so this translates into plus or minus 4000 fish. Now consider the area of concern and you can begin to appreciate the alarm this is causing to those who fish the outside coast.

DFO has said their preferred recreational management measure is zero retention of yelloweye rockfish but this might not happen because of the impracticality of the move – anglers will continue to fish for other species of groundfish and inevitably encounter yelloweye’s. While there is some directed fishing for rockfish it is thought the majority are caught as by-catch when fishing for other species, primarily lingcod and halibut. The hope is that new restrictions on these last two species to lower rockfish by-catch can be avoided but at present DFO is saying all options are on the table. In addition there may be restrictions on targeting bottom fish over known rocky ground or prohibitions on fishing deeper than a certain depth, both tactics used in jurisdictions elsewhere to address the same issue.

The one big hope is that the issue of barotrauma can be substantially offset by the use of decompression devices. These are connected to a rockfish that can’t or won’t be retained and which is then lowered back down, with the fish releasing automatically at a pre-set depth. There is a growing body of evidence that a significantly high number of the released fish survive, so much so that in some jurisdictions their use has become compulsory when bottom fishing. There are various types and brands but the best is made by SeaQualizer (seaqualizer.com), check out their website with explanatory film clips. These devices should become increasingly available in tackle stores and anglers can expect to be encouraged, if not mandated, to use them when bottom fishing.

So that’s the front burner issue of 2017. Both commercial and recreational fishermen on BC’s outer coast are going to pay big time for the mismanagement of yelloweye rockfish in decades past which, because of the long life and slow growth characteristics of the species, will have negative consequences that will last decades into the future.