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, groundfish often live 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 groundfish populations reached a record low, California, Oregon and Washington were forced to address the problem.  Managing agencies including NOAA and Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) imposed stricter regulations that ranged from decreased catch limits and seasonal closures to depth-based closures and gear restrictions. The goal was to reduce the fishing pressure enough to allow populations to recover and also reduce bycatch. These changes hit the fishing industry hard, since the restrictions prevented anglers from catching more common species as well.

The rebuilding plans for each collapsed stock were combined with marine protected areas (MPAs), which 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. Anglers tend to try and catch the biggest fish, which are often the older fish. However, 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.  Scientists dub these the “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

The combination of gear innovation and a new science-based fisheries management system, called the Groundfish Catch Share Program, has led to profound effects on the groundfish fishery. Despite the harrowing consequences the fishing community experienced due to the fishery collapse, results of the new fisheries management tactics have been promising. 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 Bocaccio Rockfish and Pacific Ocean Perch have rebounded decades ahead of schedule as well.

Case Study: Cowcod Conservation Areas

Cowcod rockfish are found at depths of 70-350 meters, typically 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 place 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 made changes to the RCA and CCAs, based on new scientific evidence that shows that the Cowcod and Yellow-eye populations are recovering faster than anticipated. Though Cowcod are still prohibited to take, the depth allowed for other groundfish fishing has increased to 40 fathoms (240 feet) in Cowcod Conservation Areas.

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, 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 stock’s 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 RCAs closed off a coast-wide ribbon of ocean between depths of 100 and 150 fathoms (183–274 m). The boundaries were strategically set so that overfished species aren’t expected to be 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. The closure successfully protected the rocky underwater habitat of some overfished species, but to the dismay of many fishermen, it also restricted fishing in some sandy-bottom areas and limited their ability to catch other target species.

However, through these combined conservation efforts, canary numbers were able to recover and grow, and the fishery 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 of canaries.

 

HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

Today, all but two of the historically overfished rockfish 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, generate hundreds of jobs, and allow recreational anglers to take an estimated 219,000 more fishing trips, spanning from southern California to 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, changes in regulations, 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.