BY MERIT MCCREA
By now, the word is out there will be a 5-fish limit on reds within the rockfish bag limit this year. But what’s the deal, and why? What do we know about reds?
Vermilion rockfish are one of about 100 species all in same genus, much more closely related than “same family.” Of these, 50-some are found in our local waters.
Within these described species, a few are suspected synonyms — actually different color morphs of the same species. For example, the black and yellow and the gopher rockfish may be the same, with the black and yellow pattern a result of living in very shallow waters.
Then there are those species that weren’t recognized until recently, including the sunset rockfish — previously confounded with vermilion. Genetic analysis of two recurring subtle variations in appearance within putative vermilion were genetically analyzed by Dr. John Hyde at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.
Initially described simply as Type 1 and Type 2, one was found more commonly in waters 300 feet and deeper in waters of the Bight, while the other was found more widely distributed but generally not down to the deeper ranges of Type 1.
In the fishery, we’d long known there were differences and it was pretty common to look at the reds in a catch and make a pretty good guess as to the region where they’d likely come from on that basis.
Those Type 1s were found in same-size aggregations of 2 to 3 pounders along the Gaviota Coast, with larger ones coming from 400-foot depths out at the Western Channel Islands. Type 2 could be found in shallower waters, even 20 feet, and into deep water, usually more scattered rather than schooled up.
While Hyde was gathering sample fish from up and down the coast, he’d asked us at the Love Lab to assist with a Santa Barbara sample. I’d contacted Jason Diamond and crew on the Stardust and he’d saved some red carcasses.
These we’d stashed in a university freezer for Hyde. In the meantime, that freezer failed and those carcasses thawed — for a while…
The smell, well, as Shakespeare’s Trinculo remarks on Caliban’s odor in The Tempest, “A fish, he smells like a fish — a very ancient fish-like smell, a kind of not-of-the-newest poor-john.” Poor- john is a 1700s variety of dried cod, cured without salt as a cost-saving measure.
Hyde was nevertheless unwilling to forego the collection. We salvaged and refroze the carcasses.
And this is the part that points to the dedication of parents to their progenies’ profes- sional passions.
A few weeks later, Hyde calls, says his parents are coming south from north where they live and will be passing through Santa Barbara, and could we have the carcasses ready for them to pick up on their way through? No problem!
So arrives this elegant couple in a well kept sedan. They’ve lined the trunk with tarps and plastic…
Scott Clark and I pull out the carcasses to show them — are you sure? Not only were they sure, but it was as if it was completely in line the regular course of things for them to be doing such a task in this way. Off they went.
In analyzing DNA (cytochrome b) John Hyde would discover that the two types were more than just a bit different, but the genetic distance was as far or further than between Type 2, the nominative vermilion and canary rockfish, the vermilion’s closest relative.
Type 1 was dubbed the sunset rockfish, Sebastes crocotulus, which roughly translates to magnificent sunset, for its glorious orange and gold, sometimes grey, interlaced patterning.
Management: The vermilion/sunset is managed under the Groundfish Management Plan as part of a “species complex” — the Minor Shelf group. Because it’s managed this way, harvest levels are set a step more precautionary than for a single species with a stand-alone stock assessment.
Low confidence in the numbers, additionally lowered by the age of the estimate, further reduce the total allowable catch.
In fact, achieving a vermilion stock assessment has been prob- lematic, as key scientific information such as species specific growth rates haven’t been sucessfully estimated and published, as I was recently surprised to discover (Von Bertalanffy growth parameters).
In a humorous twist, I’d asked Caroline McKnight with the CDFW when the most recent red stock assessment was done and she’d simply replied about 12 years ago, summarizing a much more complicated answer. Then in a different venue I’d parroted back this number within our Pacific Fisheries Management Council Groundfish Advisory sub-Panel (GAP) meeting.
In attendance was PFMC staffer John DeVore, who had been part of the long ago proceed- ing estimating red stocks. He clarified there had never been a successful vermilion stock assessment and honored me for having invented one on the fly. Gerry Richter, our GAP California Non-Trawl Fixed Gear representative, and holder of a great deal of GAP institutional knowledge after more than a dozen years at it, illuminated that despite a pair of attempts, no stock assessment of reds had “stuck” — passed muster for use in management.
Managers have been working with not that good “best available science” on vermilion for years, with the fisheries exposed to a growing precautionary penalty (skipping a deep dive into the weeds here).
It all came home to roost in late 2019 when Avila commercial fisherman Bill James pointed out in public comment on the PFMC floor that the numbers indicated harvests of vermilion had far exceeded their stock contribution within the Minor Shelf Complex.
The fish is on the roster for assessment this year and work started, data sources being gathered. Jason Cope will lead for the Oregon and Washington region, Melissa Monk and Xi He have the Northern California region, while E.J. Dick and Xi He cover the SoCal region data.
With this stock assessment we hope to get out from under a lack of good best-available-science and the resultant harvest restrictions. But bringing it all together, it appears impossible to pull vermilion from being considered within a “stock complex” as very little if any of the data on reds separates the two species.
In fact, to date, data is gathered from the fisheries and in the field only as “vermilion.” No one is verifiably trusted to consistently distinguish the two species on sight.
I think our Love Lab members could do it and John Hyde says he’s identified clear phenotypic differences too. But then again we Love Lab crew basically swept the juvenile rockfish field I.D. contest at the Groundfish Conference several years back.
Here’s the difference, in words: Sunsets have a worm-like pattern of orange and yellow, to orange and grey when immature, a forward deepest depth just behind the head, which more quickly tapers. Their tail fin is usually indented (slightly longer at the tips when pinched together).
Vermilions have a solid red-orange to speckled red-gray pattern with lower scales’ back edges ringed with tiny dark speckling, a less tapered depth of body with the deepest part extending well back from the head, and a flat tail fin (tips and center same length when pinched together).
Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.