Feds List 3 Sound Rockfish Species

Score another ESA listing for Sam Wright.

Today, NOAA declared three types of rockfish in Puget Sound as either threatened or endangered.

The move comes despite WDFW’s half-decade-long ban on retention of canary and yelloweye in Puget Sound, a new ban on keeping any rockfish in the San Juan Islands and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca as well, and new fishing-depth restrictions put in place starting May 1.

In the Georgia Basin, which includes Puget Sound and Georgia Strait, NOAA designated those two species as threatened and bocaccio rockfish as endangered. The latter listing means the species is at high risk of extinction; a threatened listing means they’re vulnerable to extinction in the near future and in need of protection.

Sam Wright of Olympia had also asked the Feds to list greenstriped and redstriped rockfish, but scientists found those to be at low risk of winking out.

It follows up on the retired WDFW biologist’s 1999 request to federally protect 18 Sound species, including the above rockfish as well as types of cod, hake, pollack and herring. Listings were not warranted at that time, NOAA said. The same year he also pitched Columbia River smelt unsuccessfully then in 2007, successfully got Puget Sound steelhead onto the threatened list.

According to NOAA, all three rockfish species 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.”

The species have also been incidentally caught by anglers after other species, and are suffering from nearshore habitat degradation, pollution and lost fishing gear, the agency says.

NOAA notes that there’s already 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.”

A number of other Sound species, including resident orcas, Chinook and chum salmon, steelhead and bull trout are also protected under ESA; fishing continues for salmon and steelhead, though there will be further restrictions on the latter species when the fishing regs come out soon.

WDFW director Phil Anderson promised to work closely with NOAA, and says the state’s rockfish conservation management plan will be released this summer.

“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,” Anderson said in a press release. “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.”

He notes that WDFW has required anglers to release canary and yelloweyes in the Sound since 2004, and that few bocaccios turn up in sport or commercial harvest.

Anderson points out 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.”

Puget Sound anglers will see a new 120-foot depth restriction in the regs this season to reduce mortality of rockfish incidentally caught in other fisheries. Those deeper waters are where most adult rockfish are found, according to NOAA.

Meanwhile, Wright has petitioned the Feds to list Puget Sound coho as threatened; they’re currently a species of concern.

For more on rockfish, see the San Juan Journal’s article, WDFW’s 105-page draft rockfish plan, comment on which is open through May 21, and the Seattle Times April 28 article. The Times reports that a soon-to-be-released analysis will detail “conflicts between rockfish survival and summer salmon seasons. That document would lay the groundwork for any changes in fishing.”

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