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Rockfish will be off-limits when new fishing rules take effect May 1

Rockfish will be off-limits in most of Puget Sound when Washington state
Rockfish will be off-limits in most of Puget Sound when Washington state's new recreational fishing rules take effect May 1. Federal officials today announced that three species of Puget Sound rockfish, including the Yelloweye, pictured to the right, warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Rockfish don't command the attention like some other saltwater species do.

Halibut and lingcod, and salmon, of course, are undoubtedly among any recreational angler's fish of choice.

But their dwindling numbers have left state and federal officials with difficult decisions to make, and has set Washington state on a new course in the way it manages recreational fishing in Puget Sound.

Beginning May 1, the majority of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, including Marine Area 7, which encompasses the San Juans, will be restricted to angling for bottomfish at a depth of no greater than 120 feet (20 fathoms).

Furthermore, as part of the package of restrictions enacted by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this year, the daily bag-limit for rockfish, which for the past several years has been just one, will drop to zero (with exception of areas at west end of Juan de Fuca Strait).

While viewed perhaps by some as draconian, the ban on rockfish is seen as an appropriate step by many local fisherman.

At a recent meeting of the San Juan Island Chapter of Puget Sound Anglers, the new restrictions were endorsed by a "solid majority" of the group's membership, according to Steve Revella, a member of the chapter and of the county Marine Resources Committee.

Surveys by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which show a sharp drop in rockfish, in both size and abundance, mesh with what anglers are seeing out on the water, Revella said. The ability to keep one rockfish makes little practical sense and, he noted, even less from a conservation perspective.

"It's a good thing," Revella said of the restrictions. "The fish are being depleted and the numbers are down. They're smaller and they're becoming much harder to catch."

The pending clamp down on recreational fishing is part of a two-pronged approach in resuscitating a population that's in the throes of a steep and steady decline.

Fewer than 20 percent of 17 stocks of rockfish in north Puget Sound are considered "healthy", according to Fish and Wildlife, and three -- Canary, Quillback and Yelloweye -- are designated by the department as "depleted". In the south Sound, the plight of rockfish is much the same, with four stocks, Boccacio, Copper, Quillback and Yelloweye, identified as "depleted" by the department.

In response, Fish and Wildlife is poised to set in place a new regimen of conservation and management measures under its recently-released draft Puget Sound Rockfish Conversation Plan.

(That plan is available online , at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fish/management/rockfish/, and the department is accepting public comment on the draft through May 21.

Meanwhile, the federal agency in charge of fisheries management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is expected to weigh-in on a proposal to list three species of Puget Sound rockfish -- Boccacio, Canary and Yellowfish -- for protection under the Endangered Species Act sometime later this week.

Bringing Puget Sound's rockfish back to health could prove a difficult task, according to WDFW biologist Greg Bargmann. The fact that most species stay close to home, are long-lived and reach reproductive age later in life than most fish, makes the task that much more slippery, Bargmann said.

Moreover, he noted, older female rockfish, which give birth to free-swimming larvae, produce offspring in far greater numbers and that are more viable than their less mature counterparts.

Bargmann said that unlike salmon, wherein "runs" are cyclical and tend to fluctuate in size and strength, the pace of rockfish reproduction is more like a marathon than a sprint.

"Rockfish are more like forestry when it comes to management and conservation of the resource," he said. "When you cut a tree down it takes a long time for another one to grow."

Bargmann noted the new depth restriction on bottom fishing is designed to protect rockfish, which have an internal bladder that allows them to stay buoyant at various depths, from the fatal "bends-like" injuries that often occur when they're reeled-in from greater depths.

In fact, according to a 2004-07 WDFW study, more rockfish were "encountered" -- 21,490 out of an annual total of 35,325 -- by those fishing for bottom fish, like halibut, than any other fish.

"The mortality rate is quite high," Bargmann said. "When you go to 150 feet or deeper the survival rate goes down a lot further."

For WDFW 2010 fishing rules; http://wdfw.wa.gov/

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