Outside Yelloweye Rockfish – Again.

A month ago I wrote about what I described as the front burner issue in recreational fisheries management for the outer BC coast this year, the acute need because of past mismanagement by DFO to conserve Yelloweye rockfish. On May 19th DFO released Fisheries Notice # 0443 containing details of the 2017 recreational management plan. It’s important to note that there are no changes to the decade old rockfish management plan for the inside coast from Johnstone Strait on throughout the Strait of Georgia and adjoining areas.

Along the west coast of Vancouver Island the daily limit for rockfish (all species in aggregate) is reduced from 3 to 2 fish per day, of which only one can be a Yelloweye rockfish. For the entire remainder of the central and north coast (Areas 1 – 10 and associated offshore areas) the rockfish daily limit is reduced from 5 to 3 rockfish in aggregate, of which only 1 can be a Yelloweye.

In addition, DFO has decided to reduce lingcod retention opportunity from 3 to 2 fish per day throughout this large area, despite the fact that the stock is healthy and supports productive recreational and commercial fisheries for them. This move has been taken because of what DFO asserts to be the potential for rockfish by-catch when fishing for lingcod – note that there is no planned reduction in commercial lingcod harvest. The department is claiming that the commercial reduction in rockfish encounters will be achieved by “other measures”, expecting that the encounter rate of Yelloweye rockfish in commercial fisheries directed at other species such as halibut, lingcod and sablefish will be reduced by 80% compared to two years ago. As well the WCVI lingcod closed season of November 16 to March 31 will now come into effect for the entire outer BC coast for both rockfish and lingcod, ending the year ‘round retention opportunity previously enjoyed on the north coast.

There’s much to be concerned about all of this but the reduction in retention opportunity for a biologically unrelated fish for which there are no stock abundance concerns creates a worrying precedent in my view and I would not want to see this concept more widely applied, in the world of salmon for example.

I wrote previously that this is a result of gross over harvest of Yelloweye rockfish in outside waters during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, primarily in the commercial fisheries. I don’t blame the fishermen, they only caught what they were allowed to – the present situation is entirely the result of management failure by senior DFO groundfish staff at the time, now all long since retired I’m sure. Given that the long lives and other characteristics of rockfish were well known, why this over harvest in both the inside and outside waters of BC was allowed to happen remains a mystery, not that knowing would change the reality now.

And there’s another troubling aspect to these changes for the outside coast. After years of warnings by some voices in the recreational fishery that the rapidly escalating commercial rockfish harvest in inside waters was unsustainable, in the early 2000’s everything came to screeching halt. Having peaked at over 400 tons per year the inside commercial rockfish harvest was quickly reduced to 32 tons per year and anglers have ever since only been allowed to keep 1 rockfish of any species per day, with a closed season paired with lingcod (October 1 to April 30 on the inside). In addition it was at this time that the extensive series of Rockfish Conservation Areas was created in which no hook and line fishing is allowed, providing a theoretically unfished local stock to act as a seed bank for the surrounding area.

Having put inside waters rockfish management on a sustainable footing, it appears that DFO groundfish staff then forgot or ignored what was taking place in outside waters for the next decade, leading to the present circumstance. Given the very long life history of Yelloweye rockfish and with the damage largely already done perhaps the management outcome by now would be similar but at least the changes would have been phased in over a longer timeframe. This would have allowed for educating the angling public about such things as desired outcomes, rockfish species identification and much earlier knowledge and utilization of release descending devices, all aspects of rockfish management in which other jurisdictions like California are much advanced. Instead a decade or more has been wasted, requiring a “sixty to almost zero in a few seconds” type of management approach, generating anger and distrust towards DFO in the fishing community. I can’t in any way support what has occurred but in defense of the department I also can’t help but think that this is another outcome arising from the steady erosion of funds directed to DFO by all federal governments over the past quarter century – increasingly too few people having too much to do, with necessary work predictably going undone.

Few truer words than “what’s done is done” so what’s next? Expect a long overdue initiative to educate anglers on individual rockfish species ID – the age of erroneously classifying them “snappers”, red or otherwise, is long past. Paired with this will be a big push to raise awareness and use of descending devices that have been shown to significantly reduce mortality of rockfish if used promptly; I wouldn’t be surprised if within a few years they became a required piece of equipment when specifically fishing for any bottom fish. And there could be additional management measures such as maximum depth restrictions, additional closed areas of rocky ground or even zero retention of Yelloweye or other rockfish – DFO has stated that no measure is not up for consideration.

The Committee for the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is scheduled to review outside Yelloweye rockfish in 2018. If it decides that despite all the reductions in fisheries that the stock is endangered this will automatically require additional action by the federal government under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), in turn quite likely triggering a “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet” sort of response by DFO. Pray it doesn’t happen.