In Example of Flexibility Pacific Council Eases Yelloweye Rockfish Constraints in Groundfish Fishery

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [SeafoodNews] by Susan Chambers – June 15, 2018 – Reprinted with Permission

The Pacific Fishery Management Council took the bold step of approving a yelloweye rockfish rebuilding plan that would extend its expected year to rebuild by a couple years — something almost unheard of in the past. At the same time, the benefits to communities could be immense.

Yelloweye rockfish has been on the overfished list since 2002 and has been a constraining species in almost all sectors for commercial and recreational groundfish fishing on the West Coast. The current annual catch limit for yelloweye is 20 mt; the Council’s choice would increase that ACL to 48 mt in 2019 and 49 mt in 2020.

A 2017 stock assessment and rebuilding analysis showed yelloweye rockfish rebuilding 47 years faster than expected and estimated in the 2011 assessment.

“The change in the median time to rebuild from 2074 (in the 2011 assessment) to 2027 (in the 2017 assessment) is due to several factors, including: lower than expected catches of yelloweye rockfish in recent years; a more optimistic value on stock recruit steepness, which corresponds to a more productive stock; and strong year classes entering the spawning population in recent years,” Council documents said.

Under a no-action alternative, the median rebuilding time would be 2027; the Council opted for Alternative 2, with a median rebuilding time of 2029.

Total yelloweye mortality in the years since 2007 was roughly a little over 50 percent of the ACLs for most of those years. In 2010, the yelloweye ACL was a mere 14 mt, down from 23 mt in 2007. Total mortality of yelloweye was 19 mt in 2007 (82.6 percent of the ACL); in 2016, total mortality was only 9.47 mt, or 49.80 percent of the ACL.

Council and NMFS staff, the Groundfish Management Team and the Groundfish Advisory Panel all provided comments and reports supporting the higher ACLs and lengthening the rebuilding time. Coming out of the April meeting, the Council supported an alternative that would increase the ACL to 39 mt in 2019, but that changed by the end of the June meeting in Spokane.

They key to this change was flexibility and stability. Evaluation of the needs of fishing communities by the GMT and NMFS staff noted the cumulative effects of declines in other fisheries such as crab, salmon and sardines; market effects for species such as sablefish; environmental effects on other species that affected harvests; and overlapping state and federal regulations that limited harvests in some areas.

“Since the last evaluation of the ‘needs of the fishing community’ in the 2011 rebuilding plan analysis for yelloweye rockfish, there have been dramatic declines in West Coast fishing opportunities that have severely negatively impacted local economies,” the GMT wrote in its statement. “Although the No Action alternative would provide an additional 9-10 mt of yelloweye rockfish to communities selection of this alternative would provide limited, if any, additional opportunities to offset the recent fishery declines and increase the consistency of fishing opportunities. No Action would, therefore, limit opportunities for the stability of West Coast fishing community economies to improve.”

The GMT identified documents that showed commercial fishery ex-vessel revenues declined more than $100 million in 2017. While ex-vessel rose from 2008 through 2010, they began to fall in 2011, declining further in 2017.

While the Council’s choice of higher yelloweye ACLs for 2019 and 2020 was a bold departure from its preference for precautionary action in the past, the move had built-in constraints intended for a gradual increase in fishing opportunity.

For example, management measures such as trip limits and rockfish conservation area (RCA) boundaries for commercial fixed-gear fisheries will remain in place for the time being. This will allow the Council to modify those measures incrementally, as more landings and research data show how fisheries are responding to regulatory changes.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife representative on the Council, Maggie Sommer, spoke to the need for flexibility in the fisheries. We will continue to face challenges, she said, “ones we can predict, ones we can’t.”

This motion will help fishermen adjust their fishing strategies and test new areas, all with a risk-averse approach, Sommer said. Making this change will begin starting the process of providing more opportunities to fishermen and increasing the resilience of fishing communities, she added.

The shoreside trawl fleet noted that although the increase of yelloweye to the sector would be relatively small, just knowing there is some yelloweye quota on the market will provide opportunity. Trawlers have been hesitant to fish in some areas due to potential yelloweye interaction. With more quota available, trawlers may test fishing grounds to access more abundant species of rockfish to rebuild retail markets.

Council Chairman and Washington member Phil Anderson, speaking to the motion, referred to living through the 10 to 15 years of “yelloweye terror” as the Council struggled with processes to prevent overfishing and rebuild the stock. He also appreciated the precautionary nature of the motion to increase the ACL and change the rebuilding plan.

This was the last meeting for Oregon Council member Dorothy Lowman, former Council chair, as a Council member. Yelloweye rockfish management was a major consideration during all of her time on the Council. Her last term ends this year.

Noting a lot of support for the motion, Lowman also recognized the precautionary nature of the alternative. It’s nice to leave the Council on a higher note, she said. “I’m optimistic.”

Photo: yelloweye rockfish Credit: Dr. John Butler, NOAA NMFS SWFSC