Rebuilding Pays off for West Coast Groundfish

Half of the 10 West Coast groundfish species that had been determined to be overfished since about 2000 are now rebuilt, and at least two more may be rebuilt in the next few years.

The successful rebuilding of commercially important species including petrale sole, canary rockfish, and widow rockfish are a testament to the support and sacrifice of West Coast ports and fishermen who recognized the difficult actions and fishing cutbacks necessary to restore the stocks. The Pacific Fishery Management Council was instrumental in taking the steps necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of the species.

"Many people gave up a lot over many years to get us to this point, and deserve a lot of credit for supporting the difficult conservation actions that were necessary," said Will Stelle, Regional Administrator of NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region.

Between 1999 and 2002, nine West Coast groundfish stocks were declared overfished as surveys documented their declining numbers. Pacific whiting, for example, was declared overfished in 2002. NOAA Fisheries and the Council, with support from the fishing industry, reduced commercial harvests. Combined with strong reproduction and recruitment, the fishing cutbacks led to the rapid rebuilding of Pacific whiting by 2004.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act, now in its 40th year, provided the scientific and regulatory framework to achieve this rebuilding.

NOAA Fisheries and the Council meanwhile developed rebuilding plans for the eight other overfished stocks, including lingcod, bocaccio, canary rockfish, cowcod, darkblotched rockfish, Pacific Ocean perch, widow rockfish, and yelloweye rockfish. The plans required sharp reductions in commercial and recreational fisheries targeting groundfish, 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 under the mandates of the Magnuson-Stevens Act determined that lingcod was rebuilt in 2005. The following year 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 renewed harvest opportunity 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, which is particularly significant because limitations on canary rockfish catch also restricted access to other more abundant and healthy groundfish stocks in both commercial and recreational fisheries.

The rebuilding of the two stocks will lead to increased harvest opportunities beginning with biennial harvest specifications and management measures the Council will consider for 2017-2018.

Rebuilding plans remain in place for the five remaining overfished species: bocaccio, cowcod, darkblotched rockfish, Pacific Ocean perch, and yelloweye rockfish. Darkblotched rockfish are expected to be rebuilt by 2017 and recent stock assessment updates indicate that bocaccio may be rebuilt soon after.

"Both commercial and recreational fishermen know first-hand how much they have had to give up to support rebuilding of these overfished species," Stelle said. "But the recovery we have seen in these long-lived and important species demonstrates that with their support, we can sustain fish and fisheries that are both so important to West Coast fishing communities."