Rockfish closure another blow to Southeast fleet
Southeast Alaska fishermen won’t get to target yelloweye rockfish in 2020, and that’s another notch in tightening belt for the area fleet.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the full-year closure on Dec. 31, spanning both the commercial and recreational sectors. Targeted fishing for all nonpelagic rockfish, which includes species like yelloweye, quillback, tiger and china rockfish, will be closed across the region due to declining populations of the fish.
Nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, are popular among sport anglers and are regularly caught by the longline commercial fishing fleet in the region. The personal use fisheries for yelloweye in Sitka and Ketchikan will also be closed for 2020, according to the announcement.
Biologists come up with an estimate for biomass of demersal shelf rockfish — another term for the nonpelagic rockfish species — by surveying yelloweye rockfish, the most populous and frequently harvested species, in given areas each year. They also take biological samples at ports when fish are landed.
The population of yelloweye has been declining since the mid-1990s, despite conservative management measures. Biomass has declined by about 60 percent since 1994, according to the closure announcement from ADFG.
“These concerns warrant further management action to allow for rebuilding of (demersal shelf rockfish) stocks and to ensure sustainable rockfish fisheries in the future. Further restrictions in other fisheries will be considered to reduce DSR bycatch.”
The age classes are being truncated as well, said Andrew Olson, the groundfish and shellfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska with Fish and Game. Yelloweye rockfish are an extremely long-lived species; they can live to be about 120 years old, and don’t start spawning until they are 18 to 22 years old. In recent years, surveys have shown fewer older fish and fewer young fish entering the fishery, Olson said.
“The older fish, those big females, have the most eggs,” he said. “At the same time, we’re not seeing as many fish coming into the fishery, so we’re narrowing our age structure.”
The decline has been going on for more than two decades and restrictions have ramped up. Managers started implementing restrictions to the fishery in 2006, with the Board of Fisheries setting up an allocation system to control harvest and tighter limits being placed on sportfisheries. In the last few years, commercial fishery closures for demersal shelf rockfish have gone into place as well in various areas, Olson said.
However, biomass has continued to decline, with the exact reasons not entirely clear. The closures are the next step as biologists, managers and stakeholders work on plans to rebuild the stocks, Olson said.
During the last winter season, commercial fishermen in the northern and southern Southeast areas together took about 38,749 pounds of demersal shelf rockfish. While it’s not necessarily a major fishery compared to salmon and halibut, it’s an important fishery to some communities because it is open-access, Olson said.
“Yelloweye rockfish makes up the majority of our (nonpelagic rockfish) harvest in the commercial fishery — (it) comprises about 95 percent, next largest is quillback, and pretty much everything else is miniscule,” he said. “It’s an important fishery in that it’s an open access fishery; it’s typically one of the few fisheries that are open when everything else is closed down.”
Because rockfish is such a long-lived species, it will take time to rebuild. West Coast states have had to do the same, with their stocks depleted more severely than Alaska’s; the hope is to start reversing the problem sooner to help conserve the stock for the future, Olson said.
The recreational fleet also often targets nonpelagic rockfish in Southeast: typically yelloweye, as they are one of the largest species, but also tiger, canary, and china rockfish, among other species. In 2018, anglers in Southeast harvested 163,822 fish, up from 149,927 in 2017 but down from a high of 193,098 in 2014, according to ADFG’s sport fishing survey.
Fishermen have gradually seen more restrictions go into place on nonpelagic rockfish, particularly yelloweye, said Bob Chadwick, the sportfish coordinator for Southeast Alaska.
Most recently, the annual limit for nonresident anglers in Alaska is a single yelloweye rockfish. Much of the effort for yelloweye rockfish comes from nonresident anglers, but residents do target them, he said.
Nonpelagic rockfish will often occupy similar habitat to halibut, but avoiding fishing near rocky structures can help reduce the number of rockfish hooked by accident when fishing for them is closed, Chadwick said.
“Fish in sandy areas, try to stay off rock structures,” he said. “That’s the main thing; if you’re fishing for halibut, some anglers find that fishing up in the water column, keeping it up off the bottom will reduce your harvest of rockfish.”
The Southeast guide industry is increasingly losing options, with tighter restrictions on king salmon populations that are struggling to make escapement each year, a high likelihood of reduced halibut catch limits due to declining biomass, and now a complete nonpelagic rockfish closure. Lingcod, another popular species for sportfishing, is also fully allocated ad closely and is sustainable at present, Chadwick said.
In a newsletter, the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization said it would ask ADFG to modify the emergency order closing the fishery to yelloweye only, allowing sportfishermen to target other nonpelagic rock species, given that it is the yelloweye abundance that has dropped so significantly. The organization will also petition the state to separate slope rockfish from the current “nonpelagic” definition in statute, according to the newsletter.
While only Southeast has the complete closure, a new regulation went into place for sportfishing for rockfish statewide this year: deepwater release mechanisms.
As of Jan. 1, every vessel headed out to sportfish — regardless of whether the anglers are targeting rockfish or not — must have a deepwater release mechanism on board.
The devices allow rockfish brought up to the surface to be lowered back down to their native depths and released there, which has been shown to significantly improve survival rates; rockfish suffer from decompression when reeled to the surface, but if quickly lowered to depth and released, they show much better survival rates.
Chadwick said the Southeast guide industry has been using the deepwater release mechanisms for years, so it’s nothing new for them, but the public is becoming more comfortable with them. A creel survey in Southeast Outside waters showed that about 80 percent of nonguided anglers polled had used a deepwater release mechanism at least once, he said.
“We’re concentrating now on what (we missed) with those people who aren’t using them,” he said. “Really, an upside-down weight on a hook would work.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].