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New rockfish season provides opportunity

A fisherman using a line with a long leader pulls in a yellowtail rockfish off the Oregon Coast. (John Holloway of the National Fishing Alliance)
By NOAA, Friday, April 13, 2018

Oregon fishermen have more opportunities to catch rockfish, or groundfish, following NOAA Fisheries’ approval of a new ocean fishery that uses selective gear to target plentiful species off Oregon while avoiding overfished species.

NOAA Fisheries this week announced a final rule authorizing a new Oregon recreational fishery for groundfish, such as yellowtail and widow rockfish, at midwater depths greater than 40 fathoms.

Recreational fishing for rockfish off Oregon generates more than $14 million for the state’s economy annually and has been the largest recreational ocean fishery in the state in recent years. The new fishery is expected to add to these economic benefits.

“People have been waiting a long time for this, so it’s a great opportunity to expand opportunities while still protecting those fish that need it,” said John Holloway of the Recreational Fishing Alliance in Oregon and chairman of the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel at the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council endorsed the new fishery, which begins this month.

Since 2004, recreational fishermen pursuing rockfish in Oregon had been limited to shallow depths during peak summer months to avoid impacts on overfished deeper water species such as yelloweye rockfish. That left some coastal communities with no recreational fishing for groundfish, a mainstay of the coastal economy.

The new fishery, which operates around offshore reefs at midwater depths, will also help disperse fishing pressure from nearshore reefs and reducing the likelihood that nearshore fishing will hit its limits and close early, as it did last year. It will also give charter boats an alternative to salmon fishing in years of low salmon abundance.

Holloway was one of the first to recommend the new recreational fishery a decade ago, drawing on a commercial fishing method using a “long leader,” a type of hook and line gear that suspends hooks and lures at least 30 feet off the sea floor. The method avoids sensitive groundfish species such as yelloweye rockfish that dwell on the bottom and still are recovering from overfishing in the 1990s.

Recreational fishermen tested the long-leader method under an Exempted Fishing Permit authorized by NOAA Fisheries that gave them special permission to fish in Rockfish Conservation Areas usually closed to fishing.

“The fishing community helped demonstrate to us that long leaders caught the fish they wanted to catch, and now the fishing community is benefiting,” said Gretchen Hanshew, branch chief for groundfish in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “It took some time, but fishing communities and the economy should all benefit.”

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife provided onboard observers to support the exempted fishing permit, as well as assistance in developing an environmental assessment and drafting new regulations allowing the fishery.

During test fishing over a three-year period, fishermen caught hundreds of rockfish weighing 5.4 metric tons, but only two yelloweye, Holloway said.

“We were fishing in the middle of the area and hardly catching any yelloweye,” he said.

He praised the collaboration between fishermen and managers to test and apply an innovative fishing method that benefits both fishing and the environment.

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