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5-year review finds yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio need protection, outlines recovery action

by NOAA Fisheries 16 Jun 14:05 UTC
Juvenile Yelloweye Rockfish © Dave Whitmer

NOAA Fisheries has reviewed the current status of threatened Puget Sound/Georgia Basin yelloweye rockfish and endangered bocaccio, as required under the Endangered Species Act.

While yelloweye rockfish are making progress toward recovery, Puget Sound/Georgia Basin bocaccio remain so rare that a meaningful assessment is not possible.

Biologists have concluded that both fish should retain their current status. The status review also prioritizes recovery actions for the next 5 years. It calls for reducing fishing impacts, improving habitat, and continuing to track abundance and distribution of the species during all life stages.

"While we found that no change is warranted in their status, there is more we can do for the species to put them on track for recovery," said Dayv Lowry, Rockfish Recovery Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region. "The key is that it has to be a community effort—we all have to do our part to contribute to species recovery and ecosystem health."

Biologists completing the status review evaluated progress toward the measures outlined in a recovery plan completed for the two species in 2017. They evaluated efforts to protect and restore kelp forests and eelgrass beds that provide habitat for early life stages of the species. They also concluded that efforts to remove derelict fishing gear had led to a "substantial reduction" in threats to the two species. It had also reduced threats to the deep, rocky habitats used by the fish in later life stages.

Regulations reduce bycatch

One of the main risks to the species is bycatch in fisheries. While many rockfish species support recreational fisheries on the West Coast, regulations protect yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio.

Recreational fishing records show that since 2010 anglers have caught 87 yelloweye rockfish. Of those, 77 were caught while fishing for salmon and three-quarters of them were caught in the San Juan Islands. Anglers reeling in the fish accidentally hooked from the depths of 1,000 feet or more may expose them to dramatic pressure changes that can injure and kill them. Many fisheries now require anglers to have "descending devices" that help lower the fish back to the appropriate depths and pressures, where they typically recover. Rockfish live many decades and take years to reach reproductive age. The loss of only a few fish can make a substantial difference in the health of the population.

Anglers can obtain descending devices from most local bait shops or outfitters.

Deep-water surveys using remotely operated vehicles have produced widely varying abundance estimates of yelloweye rockfish in Puget Sound and other parts of the Salish Sea. They vary from a few thousand to more than 100,000 depending on the area surveyed. Future surveys will prioritize comprehensive sampling to enhance understanding of population health.

Regular surveys by volunteer scuba divers in waters up to 120 feet deep have searched for juvenile fish as a sign of reproduction. Because the two listed species are so rare, divers also record more common species of rockfish, such as quillback and Puget Sound rockfish, as evidence that the habitat is suited to rockfish use. In about 1,500 surveys where the divers spent at least 200 hours searching the sea floor, they saw several thousand juvenile rockfish. But they saw just five yelloweye rockfish and no bocaccio of any age. The sightings of yelloweye rockfish all came after 2021, indicating recent reproduction in the population.

Only 15 Puget Sound/Georgia Basin bocaccio sightings have been recorded since 1987 by any survey method. A focused hook-and-line survey in 2014-15 targeted bocaccio, with advice from longtime anglers and other local experts, over more than 1,000 hours of fishing. It caught only three bocaccio in 2015 and other surveys caught one in 2022. This extreme rarity, and slow maturation rate, mean that the few remaining fish may struggle to find mates and contribute to the population.

Nearshore waters offer nursery

Juvenile yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio depend on the same nearshore, shallow-water habitat as Chinook salmon. These shorelines serve as nurseries for the young fish to grow large enough to improve their odds of survival in deeper, open waters. Much nearshore habitat in Puget Sound has been lost to development, but many state, federal, and tribal programs are protecting and restoring some of what remains. For example, a Washington State program will identify 10,000 acres of eelgrass and kelp habitat that offers prime rockfish habitat to preserve and restore by 2040.

The 5-year review concluded that, due to the continuing threat of lost habitat and increasing impacts of climate change, the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin population of yelloweye rockfish remains at moderate risk of extinction. The Puget Sound/Georgia Basin population of bocaccio remains at high risk of extinction. For yelloweye rockfish, however, recent survey and modeling efforts indicate that the population is growing. Initial recovery criteria are close to being met. Once met, it will be important that population levels stay at or above these thresholds for several years to ensure long-term viability of the species.

The 5-year review recommends continued implementation of recovery measures including:

  • Education and enforcement to reduce bycatch impacts
  • Support for habitat restoration
  • Continued surveys to track population abundance and distribution

At this time, the populations will retain their current listing statuses: yelloweye rockfish as threatened, and bocaccio as endangered.

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