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West Coast Fish Species Recovers Decades Ahead Of Schedule

Fishery managers say two valuable West Coast groundfish have recovered ahead of schedule: canary rockfish and petrale sole.

That's good news for the fishing industry. The fleet has been restricted from catching healthy stocks of fish that swim alongside these protected species at the bottom of the ocean.

For more than a decade, canary rockfish have been what's considered a "choke" species. That is, protecting them choked off fishing access to other valuable species like Dover sole and black cod.

There were so few canaries left, no one was allowed to catch very many, according to John DeVore, a groundfish manager with the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Assessments in 2000 found the canary rockfish population was down to 6.6 percent of the "unfished biomass" or what it was estimated to be before people started fishing it. It was hard to catch other fish at the bottom of the ocean without the risk of also catching a canary.

"It really affected our fisheries as dramatically as any species ever has," he said. "These fish tend to be found in lots of different places. A lot of our conservation management measures were affected by canary rockfish."

Efforts to rebuild canary rockfish led managers to close entire sections of the ocean to fishing. They also contributed to a total redesign of the commercial trawl fishery. The new fishery gives fishing boats ownership shares of the available catch. It's designed to give fishers a financial incentive to avoid protected species like canary rockfish. The latest assessment shows canary rockfish have increased by roughly sixfold since 2000.

Managers didn't expect the canaries to rebound until 2057. So, they're way ahead of schedule. Another valuable ground fish, petrale sole, was declared overfished five years ago. And stock assessments show it's already rebuilt as well.

Other species, including yelloweye rockfish, are still considered overfished. But fishermen say they're looking forward to having fewer restrictions and higher catch limits now that two key species have been restored.

Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said at one point the canary rockfish catch limit for the entire West Coast was just 40 tons while the limits for other species were 10,000-20,000 tons. If the fleet caught too many canaries while targeting other fish, the entire fishery would be shut down.

"We used to catch 400,000 tons of canary rockfish back in the heyday," he said. "It's not like we want to go out and catch that many as soon as it's rebuilt, but this should open up a lot of opportunity to catch other fish. It is good news, and we're darn thankful."

The process of protecting and rebuilding overfished stocks has taken a big toll on the number of groundfish boats in operation on the West Coast. Before 1994, Pettinger said, there were 500 trawl vessels catching groundfish. Now, he said, the fleet is down to about 70 boats coastwide.

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