Keywords: Species and food webs, Fishes, Marine habitat, Nearshore habitat, Rockfish, Monitoring, Kelp, Species of concern, Salish Sea Currents magazine

Fishing for rockfish was once promoted as a sustainable alternative to salmon harvests, but when rockfish numbers plummeted, fisheries managers realized they had a problem. Now a rockfish recovery plan seeks to reverse the damage as scientists learn more about protecting this once-popular game fish.

Captain Steve Kesling’s 31-foot fishing boat idled in 250 feet deep water near a small island in Puget Sound. In the boat were two volunteers and NOAA fisheries biologist Kelly Andrews, who was overseeing a study to avoid accidental catches of threatened and endangered rockfish. Begun in March 2017, Kelly’s research compared three types of bait: frozen herring, artificial lures, and live Pacific sanddab, a type of flounder.

The fishers were using Pt. Wilson Jig Darts, a green, yellow, and silver fish-shaped lure about six inches long. One of the volunteers quickly caught a copper rockfish, historically the most common rockfish species in the Sound. At 17 inches long and weighing about three pounds, the fish was brownish with a hint of gold on top that mottled down to white, with hints of pink toward his head and brown toward his rear. Like most rockfish, this one had stout, sharp dorsal spines, which Kelly astutely avoided.

Distressingly, the copper’s stomach extruded out of his mouth looking like a huge thumb. Bottom dwelling coppers, like other rockfish, achieve neutral buoyancy, which allows them to remain in deep water, by regulating gas in their swim bladders. At the surface with its much lower pressure, gasses within the bladder expand, leading to what is known as barotrauma, when the fish can have a bloated or ruptured swim bladder, distended stomach and bulging eyes.

Most rockfish that suffer from barotrauma cannot descend back to their home habitat and typically end up dead, floating on the surface, which has contributed to a decline in rockfish numbers. But Kelly was ready to aid the fish caught that day. After measuring each one, he clamped a five-inch-long, black plastic tube with a pressure-sensitive, spring-loaded clamp on the end to the fish’s mouth. He then attached the tube, called a descender, to a weighted line, dropped it overboard, and returned the fish to the deep.

Prior to the development of descenders, fishers attempted to aid barotraumatized rockfish by using a hook or hypodermic needle to puncture the swim bladder. It had little positive benefit. In contrast, initial studies of rockfish taken back to depth with descenders have shown that the recompressed fish typically survive, though fish from very deep water (greater then 400 feet) often suffered from disorientation and vision problems.

Images of three species of orange to red rockfish.]

In 2010, three species of rockfish in Puget Sound were listed under the Endangered Species Act. Shown here from left to right are yelloweye (Sebastes ruberrimus), boccacio (Sebastes paucispinis), and canary (Sebastes pinniger) rockfish. Photos: NOAA Fisheries

The results of the bycatch study are still under peer-review, but the initial data suggest that anglers can catch the same amount of lingcod and significantly reduce unwanted catch of rockfish in Puget Sound by using large, live baits, such as flatfish, greenlings, and sculpins. Like many biologists, Kelly hopes that this research can help managers make better-informed decisions.

His study is a direct result of the 2010 listing of three species of rockfish in Puget Sound on the threatened and endangered species list. (Washington state also lists 11 species as Species of Concern.) Since the 2017 publication of a 267-page recovery plan, biologists have continued to develop plans, budgets, and schedules, while also studying and publishing new reports on the life histories of rockfish. “The more we learn the better able we are to provide new resources for management,” says Dayv Lowry, Rockfish Recovery Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Unintended consequences

Twenty-seven species of rockfish live in Puget Sound, all in a single genus, Sebastes, meaning magnificent. Unlike the waterway’s best-known fish, salmon, rockfish give birth to live young, ranging in number from around 3,000 in the smallest local species, the Puget Sound rockfish (Sebastes emphaeus), up to 3,000,000 for the three-foot-long yelloweye (Sebastes ruberrimus). Rockfish are also famously long-lived with many species that break a century in age, a persistent misunderstanding that formerly resulted in mismanagement of the fish.

Rockfish populations across Puget Sound began to wane in the 1970s, driven in part as an unintended consequence of Judge George Boldt’s decision in United States et al. vs. State of Washington et al. In September 1970, United States Attorney for western Washington Stan Pitkin filed suit against the State of Washington on behalf of tribes on the coast and in Puget Sound. Pitkin and his clients claimed that the state had not upheld the tribes’ rights, which had been defined in the treaties the parties signed in 1854 and 1855: “The right of taking fish at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the United States…”

On February 12, 1974, Boldt ruled that the state had violated the treaties and systematically discriminated against the tribes. He declared that the tribes had the rights to one half of the annual catch of harvestable salmon and steelhead. In determining the allotments of fish, Boldt based his reaffirmation of the tribes’ rights on the definition of “in common with,” which meant sharing equally the opportunity to take fish at “usual and accustomed” locations.

Although some state officials tried to circumvent or overturn Boldt’s decision, fisheries managers recognized that they needed to respond to the new reality of fishing in Puget Sound. With the tribes now able to catch fifty percent of the salmon, commercial and recreational fishers would have to drastically reduce their share of the harvest. Making the situation more challenging, salmon populations had been dwindling for decades.

A long fishing pier extends out over the water.

The public fishing pier in Edmonds which opened in 1979 was built as part of an effort to encourage fishing for fish other than salmon, such as rockfish. Recreational fishing has contributed to the decline of rockfish populations. Photo: Pfly (CC BY-SA 2.0)

To combat this new reality, state and federal fisheries biologists encouraged non-Tribal fishers to pursue other fish besides salmon, such as rockfish. They began by reaching out to the public via fishing and hunting magazines with articles such as “Bottomfish: Overlooked Gems in Puget Sound,” “How We Find, Fish Rockfish Reefs,” and “The Key to Rockfish Heaven: Kelp.” “The quillback [rockfish] is in flavor the equal of any Northwest game fish and finer than most,” wrote one fan of rockfish.

State biologists also started building artificial reefs around Puget Sound. Constructed from quarry rock boulders, tires, and scrap concrete rubble, slabs, and boxes, the reefs were typically within 500 yards of shore, in water less than 100 feet deep, and covered more than an acre. They had high relief and abundant cracks and caves; two features favored by rockfish. By the mid-1990s, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) had constructed more than a dozen reefs designed for fishers in boats ranging in size from dinghies to yachts.

In addition, WDFW biologists built public fishing piers. The first two opened in Edmonds (south of the ferry) and Elliott Bay (near the grain terminal) in March 1979 and January 1981, respectively. Each extended out in the water to provide areas where anglers could access 50 to 60 feet deep water. More than simply a platform to fish from, the piers consisted of a much larger underwater structures designed to attract fish and provide safe habitat away from the anglers.

In the years following the Boldt decision, rockfish harvests soared, rising from a peak of about 200,000 pounds to almost 900,000 pounds in 1980. Initially, commercial fishers had taken the most fish but from 1972 to 1999, when the commercial rockfish fishery in most of greater Puget Sound was banned, the vast bulk of harvested rockfish were on the ends of rods held by those who accessed the piers and reefs.

With the rise of the recreational fishers, though, the rockfish population plummeted, dropping to an average of 42,000 pounds between 2004 and 2007. Unfortunately, biologists in 1970s and early 1980s didn’t fully understand the reproductive challenges of fish that don’t reach sexual maturity until their teens or twenties and then may go many years without reproducing because of poor environmental conditions. In particular, the huge harvests had most likely removed the old, big, and most reproductive fish. Without them, the populations could not recover. Not until 1983, did the state lower the daily bag limit from 15 to 10, which eventually dropped to 5, then to 1, and finally to zero. Over the same period, the state also extended the geographic bans on commercial fishing, ultimately banning it completely in 1999. 

Recovery plan

Because of the overfished rockfish populations, bocaccio, canary, and yelloweye rockfish were placed on the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Species on April 28, 2010. The listing applied specifically to the portion of these species that live in the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin, the area east of a line roughly between Victoria, British Columbia, and Port Angeles. That location was chosen because of the underwater rise, or sill, that restricts water movement and consequently interchange between coastal and inland bocaccio and yelloweye. (In January 2017, NOAA delisted canary rockfish because biologists determined that fish in the inland waters and those on the outer coast were not separate populations.) That same year, a team of state, federal, tribal, and academic biologists produced the rockfish recovery plan with the goal of restoring the two species “to the point where they no longer require the protections of the ESA.”

In July 2021, biologists published the first-ever study of rockfish that were younger than a year old (known as “young-of-the-year” or  YOY) in the Salish Sea.  Based on citizen science SCUBA programs and a collaboration of state and federal agencies, non-profit groups, and academic institutions, the report addressed the “recruitment dynamics and habitat utilization by recently settled rockfishes.” Understanding this stage of life in rockfish, when the larvae are small and abundant, is essential, says Lowry. “We need to know where the larvae live, who eats them, and what environmental conditions lead to high quality recruitment years.”

A small brown fish swimming next to colorful orange and white sea anemones.

A young-of-the-year (less than one year old) brown rockfish (Sebastes auriculatus) among Metridium anemones off Vashon Island in Washington. Photo: Adam Obaza/Paua Marine Research Group

All fish managers face a central problem in how fish respond to fishing. Recruitment in short-lived species, such as herring and salmon, fluctuates greatly from year to year but because the fish reproduce so quickly, they can predictably and quickly increase their population despite a poor recruitment year or couple of years. Long-lived rockfish tend to have very sporadic, high quality, jackpot recruitment years, and even when the fish hit the jackpot, another decade or two must pass before they reach sexual maturity and can start adding their progeny to the population.

Another post-recovery plan-report based on a meta-analysis of 29 studies sheds additional light on rockfish recruitment. Instead of assuming, for example, that a two-pound female rockfish produces twice as many eggs as a one-pound fish, the study shows that a single, two-pound female is proportionally more fecund than two, one-pound females. Other studies of large, female rockfish show that they can produce more broods per year and allocate greater energy reserves to their offspring. 

Jamey Selleck, a co-author of the YOY study says “these females are super important; they can literally produce millions of offspring. We need to create an environment that supports these young." All this new information is starting to be incorporated into models for estimating stock assessment.

As part of the Recovery Plan, researchers have also focused on reaching out to the public: “education, outreach, and public involvement are prioritized because understanding, support, and participation from stakeholders are fundamental to successful conservation.” Education and outreach have included placing signs with information about rockfish at all major boat launches around Puget Sound, creating a species identification card, developing classroom curriculum, and perhaps most innovative of all, publishing The Rockfish Kids Book about bocaccio and yelloweye, which is oriented toward children.

Released in September 2021, the full color, 30-page book by artist and marine scientist Claudia Makeyev grew out of research at the University of Washington that focused on fishers and their knowledge of rockfish. Based on more than 440 interviews of recreational anglers at 15 boat launches and marinas throughout Puget Sound, the study clearly showed that the better people understand rockfish biology, the higher the chance they will support conservation and protection of rockfish.

Makeyev says that rockfish are a particularly good group of fish for a kids’ educational book. “They have cool spikes, a big head and knowing eyes, sort of like a dragon. They are so charismatic I think it’s easier for kids to connect with them,” she says. Plus, because rockfish are long lived, they are fish that kids can begin to develop a relationship that can continue through their lifetime. “We know that recovery is going to take many years so it’s good to get people involved from a young age. Perhaps they will have a chance to benefit from what is happening now.”

This article is adapted from David B. Williams’ book Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound, published in 2021 by the University of Washington Press.

About the author: David B. Williams is a naturalist, author, and educator whose award-winning book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography explores the unprecedented engineering projects that shaped Seattle during the early part of the twentieth century. He is also the author of "Seattle Walks: Discovering History and Nature in the City," "The Street-Smart Naturalist: Field Notes from the City," and co-author of "Waterway: The Story of Seattle’s Locks and Ship Canal." His most recent book is "Homewaters: Human and Natural History in Puget Sound" published in 2021 by the University of Washington Press. You can find Williams on Twitter at @geologywriter.