West Coast Groundfish Rebuilding Success

Seven of the 10 West Coast groundfish species found to be overfished since about 2000 are now rebuilt, with NOAA Fisheries declaring bocaccio and darkblotched rockfish rebuilt ahead of schedule earlier this month.

Bocaccio rockfish-West Coast groundfish species
Bocaccio rockfish. Photo: Mary Nishimoto, NOAA

Scientists, managers and industry collaboratively developed rebuilding strategies for the overfished species through the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The nation’s primary fishing law, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act (MSA), requires NOAA Fisheries to manage fish species (or “stocks”) for long-term sustainability. If a stock’s abundance falls to the point that it is overfished, then the MSA requires a plan to rebuild the stock in as short a time as possible, while balancing this need with the needs of fishing communities.

Image courtesy of Lewis and Clark Legacy 2001
Darkblotched rockfish.

“The combination of sound science and well-designed management policies were very effective in turning things around, but it also involved many challenging years for the fishing fleet in adapting to lower harvest levels,” said Barry Thom, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region.

From 1999 to 2002, scientific stock surveys documented declining numbers of West Coast groundfish, and the Council and NOAA Fisheries took action by declaring them overfished and reducing commercial harvests. While the reductions represented sharp blows to coastal economies, fishing communities and the fishing industry recognized the importance of maintaining sustainable groundfish stocks for the long term. Bocaccio, for example, was declared overfished in 1999, but strong reproduction and recruitment combined with the fishing cutbacks helped rebuild the species five years ahead of the original target of 2022.

Bocaccio rockfish-West Coast groundfish species
Bocaccio rockfish. Photo Chad King, NOAA

The MSA provided the scientific and regulatory framework to achieve this rebuilding. The law requires NOAA Fisheries to use the best available science in managing fisheries sustainably to provide long-term national benefits. For more details of the MSA’s mandates, visit

NOAA Fisheries and the Council also developed rebuilding plans for lingcod, canary rockfish, cowcod, Pacific Ocean perch, widow rockfish, and yelloweye rockfish. The plans required sharp reductions in commercial and recreational groundfish fisheries, which included widespread fishing closures through the establishment of Rockfish Conservation Areas off the West Coast.

The impacts of the fishing restrictions extended beyond the overfished stocks. The groundfish fleet had to limit fishing for other more abundant species to avoid unintentional catch of the overfished stocks.

Stock assessments conducted by NOAA Fisheries routinely tracked rebuilding progress. In 2006 the Council and NOAA Fisheries amended the rebuilding plans for the seven remaining overfished stocks to meet the Magnuson-Stevens Act’s mandate to rebuild overfished stocks in the shortest time possible, taking into account the needs of fishing communities and interaction of the stocks within the marine ecosystem.

In 2009 a stock assessment determined that petrale sole was overfished. NOAA Fisheries and the Council adopted a rebuilding plan for it the following year.

The rebuilding successes continued. In 2012 a new stock assessment found that widow rockfish was rebuilt, which allowed for additional harvest and helped increase the fleet’s access to other healthy groundfish species. Further assessments led to a declaration in 2015 that petrale sole and canary rockfish were rebuilt. That was particularly significant because limitations on canary rockfish also restricted access to other more abundant and healthy groundfish stocks.

Rebuilding plans remain in place for the three remaining overfished species: cowcod, Pacific Ocean perch, and yelloweye rockfish.  All three are on track with their plans, with cowcod estimated to be rebuilt by 2020, Pacific Ocean perch by 2051, and yelloweye rockfish by 2074.

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Article from NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region bulletin