BY MERIT McCRREA
March 1 marks the first regional opening for recreational boat-based take of groundfish, including rockfish, cabezon and greenling, (RCG Complex) lingcod, sheephead and whitefish. It comes with expanded access out to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s (PFMC) 100-fathom point-to-point lines. It also comes with a 5-fish sub-bag lim- it on vermilion and sunset rockfish — i.e. reds — combined. This is within the 10-fish combined bag for rockfish, the same way cabezon and greenling fall within those 10.
The last bit of complexity above is just the tip of the iceberg of the overall complexity a boat operator has to know.
What skippers have to know is but a portion of the info supporting these limits and lines.
While newly fishable areas extend throughout the Bight, some of the key elements are:
Opening to the 100-fathom line is mostly about opening access to banks shallower than 75 fathoms but not included inside the 75-fathom lines. The additional access to waters between 75 and 100 fathoms is helpful but represents a smaller amount of additional fishing area due to the steepness of the continental slope.
The Santa Rosa Flats, which is mostly far shallower than 100 fathoms, will also open.
The bank including The Dome in the middle of the Santa Barbara Channel, a high spot far shallower than 100 fathoms, will open as well.
The 9-Mile Bank off San Diego is one of these banks but it remains closed for now. It is at the top of the list to work on reopening to fishing.
Similarly, the 60-Mile Bank also remains closed for now.
There are no changes within the CCA: see below…
I’m saying right up front — if you’re the casual angler, what you should come away with from all that follows is simply that you should probably go with a pro to stay on the right side of the law. And if you are a seasoned skipper, what you’ll need to know are the details that others can basically afford to read and forget.
As is usually the case, regulatory complexity is the result of recovering some access while facing the prospect of loosing all of it. The basics: Bag limits, hook limits. In times and areas when the recreational season for the RCG Complex is open, there is a limit of 2 hooks and 1 line when fishing for the RCG complex. The bag limit is 10 RCG Complex fish per day coastwide, with a sub-bag limit of 5 fish for vermilion rockfish. This sub-bag limit counts to- wards the bag limit for the RCG Complex and is not in addition to that limit. Retention of yelloweye rockfish, bronzespotted rockfish, and cowcod is prohibited. Multi-day limits are auhorized by a valid permit issued by California and must not exceed the daily limit multi plied by the value of days in the fishing trip.
The geography: There are 5 separate Groundfish Management areas, each with subtly different regulations, “depth” limits and seasons.
The Southern region is the one opening March 1. It lies between Point Conception, Santa Barbara County and the Mexican border and also includes all the islands. Within it are the Cowcod Conservation Areas (CCA). These the legal groundfish areas are contained within the PFMC 40-fathom point-to-point lines drawn around Santa Barbara Island, San Nicolas Island, the Cortes and Tanner banks.
No other areas within the CCA — whether or not they are shallower than 40 fathoms — are legal. No other areas in the Southern Management area outside the CCA and outside the PFMC 100-fathom line are legal for groundfish, irrespective of their depth.
Not too surprisingly there are some spots deeper than 100 fathoms inside the PFMC 100- fathom lines, and these are legal to fish. Bottom line, so to speak, you have to know where these lines are, not just the depth under the keel.
The previous limit line was the PFMC 75-fathom line and this defined inner edge of what is called the Non-Trawl Rockfish Conservation Area or RCA. The reason for these conservation areas is that they were a management measure to reduce the take of overfished rockfish species and keep catches of these fish under their much reduced Annual Catch Limit (ACL) — a number of metric tons, which if reached, would shut the fishery off completely for all rockfish mid-season.
At one time there were many rockfish listed as overfished, but since then just one — the yelloweye rockfish — remains in an overfished state. The most recently recovered species is the cowcod.
While yelloweye live mostly north of Pt. Conception – the climactic dividing line between SoCal and the rest of the state — cows are found mostly south of there. Their being declared rebuilt greatly increased their ACL and the opportunity for a cautious relaxation of the spatial restrictions that have been in place in SoCal waters for two decades — the CCA and RCA.
I and others in the regulatory process went to work on an initial step, the extension of the fishable area out to 100 fathoms, south of Pt. Conception.
While several isolated banks shallower than 100 fathoms were also proposed and not ulti- mately accepted, a new 100- fathom line was established around the northern Channel Islands. It included the expan- sive Santa Rosa Flats bank.
Several refinements were made to the PFMC 100-fm lines drawn about Catalina and San Clemente islands and along the southern end of the coastal 100- fathom line.
These new points and lines went into regulation earlier this year. In publishing these, they were as edits to the original lines already in place. The full set along the coast was not in- cluded in the published rule making so I went to work looking for a source for the combined set.
It was PFMC member Capt. Louie Zimm who located the full set as CSV files available here: www.fisheries.noaa.gov/ resource/data/depth-based- boundary-lines-west-coast
Skippers can use these to create points and lines on their plotters. I am including those for SoCal — the ones that are newly changed. Others to the north have not, save a small change in the PFMC coastal 40-fathom off Halfmoon Bay.
However, this year’s regs will open fishing to the 50-fathom line there for the first time in years come April 1.
Red sub-bag limit: Reds are managed together with 14 species of rockfish as the Minor Shelf Complex. While only a combined overage across all 14 species will shut the fishery down, each of the species within the complex has an expected “stock contribution.”
Stock data on reds is old and woefully weak. It does not reflect the greatly increased abun- dance evidenced by catches we see today. As a result, recent catches have greatly exceeded what their official stock contribution numbers justify.
In fact, using those old numbers without any flexibility would result in a 2-fish sub-bag limit. However, managers recognized the core issue here as poor data and missing science. It ap- pears no size at age estimates had ever been determined and published for use.
Two things resulted. Work on a new and current stock assessment was pushed to the front of the work fisheries scientists were tasked with and is currently being worked on. A precautionary reduction to 5-fish in the overall bag limit was imposed.
This limit serves to moderate their take on the most success- ful outings and will send skip- pers into shallower waters and alternate areas after other species as needed. The 5 reds is a whole lot more than the 2 it would have been had the PFMC not weighed in. It provides precaution while also avoiding unwarranted catch restriction.
Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat captain, he is a marine research scientist with the Dr. Milton Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.