Rockfish at risk

In Alaska, it’s still child’s play to catch black rockfish, one of the many species of rockfish that inhabit coastal waters.

I’ve been on trips in the Gulf of Alaska when four or five of us — everyone on board — caught a 10-fish limit of these eager biters in less than an hour of fishing. Sometimes it took longer to fillet the fish than to catch them.

In the recent past, it was still possible to find remote places in Alaska that were virtually untouched, where large, old fish could be hooked as fast as you could get a jig in the water.

The good times may not be over for Alaska, but we could learn a thing or two from what has happened to rockfish in Washington state, where the good times have been over for decades.

I grew up in Western Washington. In the mid-1940s, my father would come home from a day of fishing on Puget Sound with gunny sacks full of rockfish and lingcod. I remember him and his fishing buddies filleting fish far into the night. This was before home freezers. Mom would put them in coffee cans, fill the cans with water, and take them to the cold-storage locker in town. Those fish were a main source of protein for our family.

Now, those fish are so scarce, no one depends on them. Fishing for rockfish and Pacific cod in Puget Sound is closed, and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Lingcod fishing is restricted to a few weeks a year.

What happened to the rockfish of Puget Sound didn’t happen overnight. It’s one of many problems caused by the increase in human population around the sound since World War II.

The seriousness of Washington’s rockfish problem is undeniable. According to the Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan (March 2011), “A scientific conference held in the San Juan Islands in 2003 concluded that the outlook for rockfish was ‘grim’ (Mills and Rawson, 2004). A special review by the American Fisheries Society found several species of rockfish to be ‘vulnerable’ in Puget Sound. A review of marine life in Puget Sound concluded that demersal rockfish were in decline, largely as a result of overharvest (West 1997). Another review of marine fish concluded that marine fish in Puget Sound were among the most threatened stocks of fish in North America.”

The conservation plan also states that the declines of Puget Sound rockfish have been caused by other “stress factors,” including chemical contamination and poor water quality.

I’m not saying that the end is near for Alaska’s rockfish, but we ought to pay heed to what’s happened to Puget Sound, where fishing used to be every bit as good as it is in Alaska.

For more info: http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/fisheries/rockfish/

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Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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