California Rockfish Regulation Change
As part of an ongoing effort to protect California’s cowcod stocks, the Department of Fish and Game has announced that on November 1, the legal depth limit to target rockfish will be changed from 360 to 300 feet.
This is a result of a recommendation made by the PFMC (Pacific Fisheries Management Council) because the cowcod take is projected to exceed the federal limit established for the non-trawl sector, which includes recreational and commercial fixed-gear fishing.
Although this change may not seem like all that big of a deal to most, it sets a very dangerous precedent that can have far-reaching effects. To understand the significance of this restriction, one must first understand the chain of events that lead up to this point.
Cowcod, which were declared overfished by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2000, have always been a prized target of both commercial and recreational fishermen. The largest of California’s rockfish, cowcod can live up to 55 years and reach sizes in excess of 40 pounds. They’re solitary ambush predators that spend their time mingling with and feeding upon the lesser rockfish that inhabit deep-water reefs throughout the Southern California Bight.
Historical records show that the spawning biomass of cowcod in California was at near virgin levels in 1916 and remained stable until 1950. During that time, the limited data available shows that cowcod comprised approximately 3 percent of the total commercial rockfish catch. But the exponential increase in California’s middle class following the end of World War II led to more people purchasing commercially caught rockfish and by association, more boats went fishing for them. Due to the increase in fishing pressure, the cowcod catch dropped to approximately 1 percent of the total rockfish take by 1961, and by 1987 it had dropped to 0.3 percent.
One thing to keep in mind when looking at this data is that NMFS included the following disclaimer in their report: “Data Deficiencies: A dedicated survey effort is needed to obtain good biomass estimates. Population structure data are missing.”
Although a few unimportant parts were missing from the equation, like “biomass” and “population structure,” NMFS decided that action was needed to protect our cowcod stock from irreparable depletion. This action ended up coming in the form of banning commercial fishing, changing allowable depth restrictions for sport fishermen and creating the Cowcod Conservation Area (CCA).
The CCA is a 5,100 square nautical mile zone covering Santa Barbra Island, San Nicholas Island, Cherry Banks, Cortes Bank, Tanner Bank and the 43 Fathom Bank. Within this area, anglers cannot take or possess any rockfish, lingcod or associated species (including cabezon, sheephead, sclupin and whitefish) while fishing in waters of 20 fathoms (120 feet) or greater in depth.
NMFS stated that these measures where necessary to ensure a return to healthy cowcod stocks. What they didn’t state (and I had to read through a pile of reports to find) was that based on their predictions of the estimated current stocks, it will take somewhere between 75 and 100 years for the species to recover from overfishing.
Considering that adult cowcod live in waters from 300 to 1,600 feet in depth, the CCA coupled with the new depth restrictions should be just what the doctor ordered to get the cowcod stocks healthy again. The problem is that we’ll never know for sure if it worked or not since no one made an accurate assessment of the biomass prior to the restrictions. Maybe our grandchildren will find out when and if they reopen the fishery in 80 or so years.
Getting back to the change in regulations. What the PFMC is saying is that too many cowcod are being caught in waters less than 360 feet and as a result anglers need to fish in waters less than 300 feet to avoid catching cowcod. Herein lies the rub.
While adult cowcod live in waters greater than 300 feet, juvenile cowcod spend their time in water between 50 and 300 feet.
So as the adult cowcod have been going about their deepwater business without harassment for the last dozen years, they’ve been reproducing and their offspring have been heading into the shallows. You don’t need to be a marine biologist to see where this is going.
More adult cowcod spawning in deep water will result in more juvenile cowcod caught in shallow water.
The term “juvenile” is kind of deceiving as it sounds like they are talking about a tiny fish, but juvenile cowcod can reach up to more than 17 inches in length, which is pretty big for a rockfish.
So, here is where the dangerous precedent comes into play. The restriction issued by the DFG is very open-ended. It simply states that we’ve reached our yearly quota and the fishing depth has to change. If you read it one way, it sounds like this will only be in effect until the end of 2012. But if you read it another, the depth has been permanently changed to 300 feet and as the cowcod biomass continues to recover that depth will continue to drop in the future and may eventually lead to a closure of all rockfishing in Southern California.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. In the meantime, next week I’ll be taking a look at some shallower rockfish options for private boaters looking to take advantage of the rockfish bite before it’s two-month closure at the end of the year.