Fishing sector deserves praise on rockfish turnaround

Around the globe, good news about fish stocks is so hard come by that a Los Angeles Times headline from last Tuesday invites initial skepticism: “Seafood Watch cites dramatic turnaround in rockfish, other West Coast fish.” Longtime observers of this important Pacific Northwest fishery will immediately recall that several local rockfish species were viewed by the feds 15 years ago as being in a spiral toward extinction.

Rockfish are unlovely but delicious dwellers of the deep continental shelf. Like much that lives out of sight of land, they were also largely out of mind for regulators until declines in the catch and other clues began indicating they were in trouble. Particularly in light of the fact that some species reproduce at a glacial pace, fisheries scientists feared they were joining the very long list of overfished global stocks that would have a difficult time recovering.

Local fishermen harbored doubts about the perilous state of some populations, feeling that firsthand experience did not match with the severity of the warnings being delivered. Nevertheless, strict limits were imposed. Accidentally catching even a few of the most restricted species might bring the season to a screeching halt.

Last week, the Monterey Bay Aquarium issued a surprisingly glowing report card on how well the West Coast recovery program has progressed. The aquarium’s closely watched Seafood Watch website advises consumers on specific species that are managed and harvested in sustainable ways. Twenty-one West Coast commercial species were moved into the two top categories — “best choice” or “good alternative.” Similarly, in June the Marine Stewardship Council said 13 groundfish species now are well-managed and sustainable fisheries.

Some steps taken to arrive at these results will perhaps never be popular with fishermen. Measures such as closing areas to fishing, implementing Marine Protected Areas to safeguard vulnerable habitats, strict quotas and harvest monitors are seen as heavy-handed and overly expensive.

But official and semi-official recognition that West Coast fisheries management has much improved will have many benefits in terms of long-term economics and positive publicity. Examining Seafood Watch’s nationwide list shows just how well our area is going in comparison to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

“This is one of the great success stories about ecological and economic recovery of a commercially important fishery,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science, and chief conservation officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in a release.

In a follow-up interview with the Times, Seafood Watch’s science manager said, “This is a very positive thing, when you see these kinds of improvements with respect for population, bycatch, effective management and measures that protect the biological seafloor that provides shelter and food for the species.”

“Thanks to smarter fishing regulations and fishermen’s commitment to conservation, consumers and seafood businesses can now add West Coast groundfish to their list of sustainable choices,” said a spokesman at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Seafood Watch advocates extending some rockfish-related protections to other fisheries, especially steps to monitor and cut back on bycatch — which results in killing and wasting large quantities of good fish.

Local fishermen deserve everybody’s thanks and praise for coming through a difficult time, bringing these fish stocks back with diligence and patience. This shows the whole world that it can be done.

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