The Fall and Rise of the West Coast Groundfish Fishery

THE COLLAPSE OF THE WEST COAST GROUNDFISH FISHERY

For decades groundfish were the lifeblood and primary economic driver for many port towns of the west coast in California, Oregon, and Washington.  Made up of more than 90 species of bottom-feeders, like sole, flounder, rockfish, and cod, many species live extremely long lives, taking years, even decades, to reach maturity, making them extremely vulnerable to overfishing. Caught by trawl, longlines, pots (traps), and baited hooks, groundfish bring in over $140 million dollars each year in the U.S.

Today the fishery remains both recreationally and commercially important to the cultural identity and economy of coastal towns along the Pacific Ocean.  Yet, in the late 1990’s, West Coast groundfish were facing striking declines. By 2000, ten of the most popular species were completely overfished and the entire groundfish fishery was declared a federal disaster.

 

Credit: Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
FINDING A SOLUTION TO REBUILD GROUNDFISH

As catch continued to decline precipitously, the managing agencies, federal (NOAA), the three Pacific states, and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) – initially in response to lawsuits – began to impose even more stringent regulations to rebuild populations: catch limits were decreased and thousands of miles of the ocean were closed to trawl fishing. Depth closures were put in place for the recreational fishermen, effectively shutting down a huge portion of the fishing grounds, limits were placed on the amount of fish that could be harvested, and seasonal closures were imposed.  Commercial fishermen were constrained by area closures, gear restrictions, and decreased trip limits. These changes hit the fishing industry hard, since the restrictions prevented anglers from catching the more common species.

The rebuilding plans for each collapsed stock were combined with marine protected areas (MPAs), that prohibit take of some or all species within a certain geographic area, and Rockfish and Cowcod Conservation Areas (RCAs, CCAs), which prohibit the take of all groundfish within designated depths, habitats, and locations. Because it yields the highest return, anglers tend to try and catch the biggest fish, which are often the older fish. Scientists have found that these older fish are often fertile females that are critically important for rebuilding populations, since they produce exponentially more young fish than smaller females.  This biological concept is called “Big Old Fertile Female Fish” or BOFFF! By leaving the older, highly fertile females in the water through these area closures (MPAs, RCAs, and CCAs), we allow them to reproduce and help overfished species recover.

 

WHERE WE ARE NOW

Thanks in large part to gear innovations, pioneered by fishermen in response to management incentives, and to strong science-based management generally by the Pacific Council, many species have been rebuilt, and many of them years ahead of schedule. Despite the harrowing consequences the fishing community experienced due to the fishery collapse, results of the new fisheries management tactics have been promising, with landings in the bottom trawl sector increasing by a whopping 50% in 2017. For example, Lingcod was declared rebuilt in 2005, Widow Rockfish in 2011, Petrale Sole in 2014, and Canary Rockfish in 2015. Surveys have shown that depleted populations of Yellow Eye and Bocaccio Rockfish, Cowcod and Ocean Perch are rebounding decades ahead of schedule as well.

Case Study: Cowcod Conservation Areas

Cowcod rockfish are found at depths of 70-350 meters, primarily in the Southern California Bight where adult habitat is most common. The CCAs are depth-based closures, aimed to prevent bottom trawling and fishing of Cowcod. They span from Pt. Conception to the Mexico Border, and have been in place for over 15 years.  Because they have been in places for so long, they have yielded great success.

While commercial fishermen argued that the closures were crushing their livelihoods, environmental groups pushed for more conservative measures.  But in 2019 the groups came together and changes were made to the RCA and CCAs, based on new scientific evidence.  The depth limits of both were expanded, allowing more fishing especially for recreational fishermen. These changes were thanks to new scientific evidence that shows that the Cowcod and Yellow-eye populations are recovering faster than anticipated! Surveys showed that for some species, catch limits are more than doubling.

Case Study: Canary Rockfish

Canary rockfish stocks are the most recently rebuilt. Due to overfishing, their stocks were at an all-time low in 2000. If the trend would have continued, then they might have disappeared from the west coast altogether. To prevent that from happening, a multitude of conservation efforts were established including area closures, which prohibited the removal of all groundfish within designated boundaries, and careful monitoring of times and seasons fishermen were able to go out and fish. Area closures, mainly RCAs, aided in the stocks recovery by prohibiting the take of all rockfish and reducing fishing pressures.

Established in 2002 to minimize catch of overfished species such as Darkblotched and Canary Rockfish, the RCA closed a coast-wide ribbon of ocean between depths of 100 and 150 fathoms. The boundaries were set so that overfished species aren’t in the areas where and when fishing is allowed, helping protect those species. Although appropriate for its time, the RCA was a tough regulatory blow to the fishing community. While it closed some areas of sensitive, high value habitat like underwater cliffs, rock piles, and pinnacles where several species that were considered overfished congregate and reproduce, it also prevented access to vast areas of sandy, soft-bottom seafloor where more plentiful target species like Dover sole and Sablefish are found.

However, through these combined conservation efforts, canary numbers were able to recover and grow, and their full comeback was declared rebuilt in 2015, fifteen years ahead of schedule! This was evident as the catch quota for the commercial fishery increased from 1,800 lbs to 34,000 lbs. As a result, recreational fishermen have been provided with more fishing opportunities as they can now fish deeper waters in search for canaries.

 

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Today, all but 2 of the historically overfished species have recovered, and strategic plans to rebuild the remaining two are underway. The science of fisheries management is changing—the populations we once thought would take a century to rebuild, are recovering more quickly. In December 2018, NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region published a new rule that increases catch limits and eases fishing restrictions for many West Coast groundfish, including rockfish, flatfish and groundfish. The changes could increase fishing income along West Coast states by $60 million dollars and generate hundreds of jobs according to an economic analysis of the new rules. It is estimated that the changes will allow recreational anglers to take about 219,000 more fishing trips, most of them in southern California with some in Oregon and Washington!

Without the hard work and close collaboration of anglers, agencies, tribes, non-profits, and local governments coming together, recovery at this scale would have been unlikely. Now, the West Coast groundfish fishery has been certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.  Thanks to these partnerships, the resulting conservation areas, the changes in rules, and the ongoing data collection, anglers along the coast of California are already seeing significant changes and have been given more opportunities for fishing. As time goes on and science-based management continues to protect these species of concern, we expect to see their populations continue to rebound.