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Video cameras paint a clearer picture of rockfish recovery

California Sea Grant and partners help evaluate Rockfish Conservation Areas

by Caitlin Coomber, California Sea Grant

California ocean anglers have long pursued the numerous and colorful rockfish species that inhabit the coastal waters. These popular fishes have inspired the name of craft beer and the California Department of Fish and Game lists 57 species native to the state.

However, several rockfish populations plummeted due to overfishing from the 1970s to the 1990s.

In response to this dramatic decline of several rockfish species, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils established by Congress, and the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service closed large areas to fishing in 2002. These closures, called Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) occur all along the U.S. west coast, from the Canadian border to Mexico.

RCAs are depth-based closures that are intended to allow the rebuilding of overfished rockfish species. The boundaries change annually, among gear types (e.g., trawl, non-trawl and recreational), species allowed to be extracted by depth and locations, and may have seasonal restrictions, according to NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

The RCAs have been in place for more than a decade, but the extent of stock rebuilding within the closures has yet to be determined.

California Sea Grant Extension Director Rick Starr has worked with Mary Gleason of the Nature Conservancy to put together a team of commercial fishermen, state and federal management agencies, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations that are evaluating the contribution of RCAs to rebuilding the overfished species.

“The RCAs have been closed for more than 12 years now and it’s important to find out what’s happened in those areas since the closure.  Conservation needs are being met by the closures, but we need to start thinking about harvesting the healthy stocks that live in those areas,” said Starr.

Using a combination of standardized hook-and-line fishing activities and a video lander system, Starr and his team of scientists and fishermen are able to survey the closures and validate predictive maps with scientific data to get a better understanding of rockfish abundance and distribution.

The video lander system works like a lazy Suzan; a pair of video cameras are mounted to a rotating tray and dropped into the ocean. The mounted cameras transmit the signal and record the fishes and their habitat. Back in the lab, scientists review the footage to determine fish species, lengths and densities.

This study will advance understanding of finer-scale distributions, habitat associations, and demographic patterns for overfished species inside the closures to support bycatch avoidance plans, stock assessments, and spatial management decisions.

“Our goal is to better understand the distribution of overfished species so that resource managers can reconfigure the RCA to allow for more fishing opportunities,” said Starr.  

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