West Coast Trawlers Receive Permits to Target Rebuilt Rockfish Stocks

SEAFOODNEWS.COM by Susan Chambers – March 2, 2017

West Coast groundfish trawlers are fishing for rockfish again — finally.

Rockfish was once targeted by trawlers and a popular item sold in stores and restaurants, but some species were listed as overfished in the early 2000s. Measures to rebuild the stocks to healthy levels led to constraints on both targeted and non-targeted species. Recent stock assessments show rockfish are abundant and healthy.

That situation helped support the National Marine Fisheries Service approving an exempted fishing permit for trawlers in the catch shares program. The exempted fishing permit, or EFP, could result in significant harvest increases for rockfish species in Oregon and Washington waters, according to the EFP applicants.

The EFP was developed as a workaround to a regulatory backlog at NMFS and will allow fishermen to target a burgeoning biomass of pelagic rockfish: widow, yellowtail and other rockfish species. The overall allocation for canary rockfish, one of the primary constraints to increased landings of widow and yellowtail, increased by more than 1,000 percent, but NMFS was unable to lift certain restrictive gear rules in time for the 2017 season.

Four groups — the Environmental Defense Fund, West Coast Seafood Processors Association, Oregon Trawl Commission and Pacific Seafood — worked together to craft the EFP that was recently approved. Trawlers received their permits to start fishing Friday.

“We look forward to the agency’s approval of the final gear regulations package – it’s overdue. But in the meantime, this EFP gets us on the water with effective gear and the chance to target some very abundant stocks,” Warrenton, Ore.-based groundfish trawler Paul Kujala said in a press release.

The EFP, for which more than 30 vessels signed up to participate, lifts a requirement implemented in 2005 that mandated West Coast trawlers use a “selective flatfish trawl.” Selective flatfish trawls allow rockfish to escape by swimming upward as they are swept toward the cod-end, while flatfish stay low and are caught.

“Like a lot of these older regulations, the selective gear requirement made sense before we had observers and 100 percent accountability, when managers had to maximize rockfish avoidance,” OTC Director Brad Pettinger said in the release. “Now that rockfish species are largely rebuilt, these antiquated gear restrictions would have impeded fishermen’s ability to actively target the over 60 million pounds of rockfish that is available to them this year.”

Originally the EFP included California waters, but concerns over Klamath River salmon bycatch caused NMFS to scale it back. The southern portion of the EFP may be approved later in the year.

“We felt the bycatch avoidance measures we built into the EFP were sophisticated and sufficient to minimize bycatch to very low levels, but historically poor abundance of Klamath Chinook has them taking an extremely conservative approach,” EDF Pacific Region Director Shems Jud said. “So we’ll keep working on that, to ensure the agency that California trawlers can avoid Chinook while accessing these prolific groundfish stocks.”

The EFP process started in September 2016,, when it became apparent trawlers would not be able to use less restrictive gear at the start of 2017. The applicants also garnered the support of 13 West Coast Congressmen, led by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., in urging NMFS to move the EFP along quickly.

The original goal was for implementation by the first week of January 2017 so processors could hire, train and prepare for an influx of rockfish in time for Lent. A number of delays led to NMFS issuing the permits almost two months later than originally planned.

Applicants and state and federal fishery managers plan to continue discussions at the March Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting next week in Vancouver, Wash.