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PFMC Mismanagement Leads To Dramatic Rockfish Declines

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The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the quasi-governmental body that has “managed” rockfish and lingcod populations into unparalleled declines over the past two decades, revealed last month that the shelf rockfish species – may be in even worse shape than previously thought.

Representatives from United Anglers of California and the Recreational Fishing Association (RFA) were still in a state of shock after the latest data, obtained from offshore trawl catches and observers by the National Marine Fisheries Service, on May 21.

“When 30 people, including myself and Bob Strickland, got on the line for a conference call about the state of West Coast groundfish, it was like going to a 4 hour funeral wake,” said Randy Fry, president of the RFA, Northern California chapter. “We realized that any recreational or commercial fishery is toast when the whole allocation for yelloweye rockfish was only 40 to 50 fish under the best alternative.”

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Nine out of the sixteen species of rockfish assessed by state and federal fishery biologists have been listed as “overfished.” The most “overfished” are bocaccio, yelloweye and canary rockfish. Ironically, bocaccio were regarded as one of the least desirable of rockfish, earning the nickname of “worm hotels” for the parasites often found in them.

LB Boydston, inter governmental affairs representative of the DFG, said anglers could be facing the worst cuts ever in meetings of the PFMC taking place at press time.

“The worst case scenario is to reduce the bocaccio rockfish to zero catch,” he said. “This would be done by eliminating all fishing, both recreational and commercial, between 60 feet and 150 fathoms. Anglers could fish both in deeper water – if they had enough line -or in 10 fathoms and less. Our reason for the 10 fathom limit is that bocaccio rockfish at that depth can be still kept alive and released.”

The most optimistic estimate was just 14 tons for alternative 3 – in contrast with 100 metric tons last year. Boydston noted that these and other figures were being adjusted now.

Last year, the total catch optimum yield for the yelloweye rockfish, once a big staple in the recreational fishery, was 13.5 metric tons for the entire West Coast from Washington to the California/Mexico border.

However, in the coming year, the most liberal “optimum yield” alternative for the Monterey region (the California coast below Cape Mendocino) was 0.133 metric tons, which translates to only 40 to 50 fish, 287 lbs. Even with this drastic cut, this alternative provides for a chance of rebuilding the fishery of only 50 percent. Alternative 1, zero allowable catch, would provided for an 80 percent chance of rebuilding.

Sportfishing representatives are outraged at the decline in the rockfish fishery caused by ineptitude in management of public trust resources by the state and federal governments.

“We’re in deep trouble,” said Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California. ” The rockfish situation is bad out there now because of terrible management by the PFMC and DFG in both the nearshore and offshore fishery. They have not protected our resources and have instead allowed the commercial fleet to deplete the fishery. This ocean is not endless and they can’t keep taking fish.”

The cause of the decline in the rockfish population is attributed to increasingly intense pressure upon rockfish populations in both nearshore and offshore fisheries over the past several decades by commercial fisheries, particularly offshore trawlers and inshore long line and stick fisheries.

“The real problem is the DFG’s institutional bias against recreational fishing. I’ve seen it time and time again, the Department staff bending over backwards to make things work for commercial fishermen. They even showed the commercials how to use live-fish “stick gear” – really nothing more than longlines broken up into shorter lengths.

Strickland cited the example of the extremely high commercial quota for the squid, one of the key components of the food chain that rockfish, salmon, white seabass and other species depend upon. “The quota for squid last year was 185,000 tons,” said Strickland, “How much more can the ocean take? What is left for the food chain after the squid are removed?”

The solution to the mismanagement of the groundfish is not an easy one, since rockfish, unlike salmon and steelhead, are slow-growing fish. Some shelf rockfish, such as canary and goldeneye rockfish, may live for 80 to 100 years. Strickland, Martin, Fry and other recreational fishery advocates are pressing the DFG to adopt rules similar to Washington State’s – no commercial rockfishing inside three miles of shore. “At the federal level, on the PFMC, we need to demand recreational representation for the private boaters, the spearfishers, and the bankies,” said Martin.

Both Fry and Strickland were in Washington D.C. to do just that when they met with Congressmen and Senators regarding reauthorization for of the Magnsuson-Stevenson Act, which set up the regional fishery “management” councils.

Of the three bills, HR 2570 is the most promising, since it provides that the councils will be divided among recreational, commercial and conservation representatives. Commercial interests now dominate these councils. “The bill as written now is not complete,” said Bob Strickland. “It needs additional language on commercial bycatch to make it have any teeth in restoring fisheries.”

It is only by reforming this federal legislation to include more input from recreational anglers – and to place a priority on managing truly sustainable fisheries – that groundfish stocks will ever recover from years of abuse by commercial trawlers, long liners and stick fishermen.

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