NOAA’s Fisheries Service earlier today announced that it is listing three populations of rockfish in Puget Sound and the rest of the Georgia Basin for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The populations of two of the rockfish species – canary and yelloweye – have been designated as “threatened” and a third rockfish species – bocaccio – as “endangered.”
An endangered species is at high risk of extinction; a threatened species is vulnerable to extinction in the near future and in need of protection.
Populations of all three rockfish species in the Georgia Basin, which encompasses Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, were historically harvested at high levels, depleting their numbers. Rockfish are long-lived and mature slowly, with only sporadic episodes of successful reproduction, making them especially vulnerable to overfishing, said a NOAA news release.
According to NOAA scientists, rockfish population growth has also been hampered because they are often caught unintentionally by fishermen targeting other species, and by environmental factors, such as degradation of their habitat near shore, pollution and lost fishing gear that continues to snare fish.
Although rockfish make up a substantial portion of the federally managed commercial bottomfish catch off the West Coast, especially off California, rockfish in Puget Sound are managed by the state.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife prohibits fishermen from keeping any rockfish they may accidentally catch in Puget Sound. The agency also forbids bottomfishing in waters deeper than 120 feet, where most adult rockfish are found.
There is currently a broad state and federal effort to improve the sound’s water quality and habitat through the Puget Sound Partnership, which is aimed at conserving all marine life, including rockfish. Resident killer whales, Chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead and bull trout are already protected in the sound under the Endangered Species Act.
Today’s listing is in response to a petition from Sam Wright, an Olympia resident, who asked the agency in 2008 to list Puget Sound populations of five species of rockfish. In addition to the three proposed today, the petition also included greenstriped and redstriped rockfish. Agency scientists said these last two species are at a “low risk” of extinction, and protection under the ESA was not needed at this time.
This is a statement from Phil Anderson, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, on today’s listing announcement:
“Today’s decision by NOAA-Fisheries to list three Puget Sound rockfish species for protection under the Endangered Species Act is the latest step in an on-going effort to conserve and rebuild these important, slow-growing and highly vulnerable fish. Since the 1980s, WDFW has attempted to stop the decline by imposing increasingly stringent measures to protect Puget Sound rockfish and welcomes federal support for this effort.
“Since 2004, WDFW has required anglers to release any canary or yelloweye rockfish they encounter in Puget Sound. Few, if any, bocaccio – the third species listed today – have been observed in either the commercial or recreational catch in the past decade. It is clear that harvest restrictions, alone, will not be enough to recover these fish, which have suffered the effects of pollution, declining environmental conditions and increased predation by marine mammals.
“To provide additional protection for these fish, WDFW recently closed fishing for all species of rockfish from southern Puget Sound north to the Canadian border and west to Port Angeles, effective May 1. In addition, anglers fishing for other bottomfish in Puget Sound will be required to observe a 120-foot depth restriction. This new measure is specifically designed to reduce mortality of rockfish incidentally intercepted in these fisheries.
“This summer, WDFW plans to release a final Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan, establishing a comprehensive framework for rockfish conservation in the Sound. In the meantime, we will work closely with NOAA-Fisheries to ensure consistency with the provisions of the ESA listings announced today.”