The Wheelhouse Scoop: SAC Saving the 2023 and 2024 cod season

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Quillback rockfish
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BY MERIT McCREA

The Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) is embarking on a bid to recover as much of the nearshore rockfish season as possible. This is after two federal “data moderate” stock assessments dropped the state’s allowable catch of both copper and quillback rockfish so low, we can’t get under them by bag limits alone.

Bridging from last week’s column with a quick refresher, the National Marine Fisheries Service, under advice of its Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC), sets regulations to achieve sustainable fisheries of rockfish and others. Pacific states follow by adopting these measures, seasons and limits too.

The Pacific Coast was already under a rebuilding plan for yelloweye rockfish. It limited our state-wide recreational take of that species to no more than 12 metric tons (mt).

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Other rockfish species are managed as 3 stocks. These are delimited by the depths where they’re most common.

They are: Nearshore, Shelf and Slope. In addition, each species is managed by targeting a tonnage number. The ton target is guided by what’s called the specie’s “stock contribution” – the degree to which it contributes to the catch of its multi-species stock complex.

When bag limits and seasons are planned, they’re set so the coming years’ harvest projects not to exceed the targets for its included species. What happens is not only do bag limits get set on that basis, but if a zero take isn’t enough to get it done, the season itself can also get cut short on that basis.

Some fish caught and released don’t survive, and a mortality index sets the ratio and expected kill of released fish. Biologists are currently working to update these indices to account for the additional survival when a descending device is used. They also analyze data on how often fisheries observers see us use them.

Both copper and quillback are part of the nearshore complex of rockfish. These are most abundant in waters of 50 fathoms (fa, 300 feet) and shallower. The quillback is a fish which is rarely seen south of San Francisco, while we encounter coppers all the way down into Mexico.

Starting in 2023, the California annual catch target (ACT) for coppers will be just shy of 91mt. While this may sound like a lot, in 2017 the catch was 215.14mt, 2018 – 189.44mt, 2019 – 167.77mt.

When COVID-19 hit it kept lots of folks off the water as restrictions kept boats tied to docks and on trailers. The 2020 estimate is 100.14mt, 2021 – 83.18mt, and the data aren’t crunched yet for 2022.

So as you can see, it’s going to be tough to keep catches low, and even a no-fish limit doesn’t project to do the job. Then there’s quillback up north. It has an ACT of just over a ton…TOTAL!

Our California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) is compelled to propose a range of alternatives for analysis, following the best available science, such as it is. Their novel approach includes flipping of the way we use those depth limits.

Being forced to consider closing inshore waters and the nearshore complex for most of the year they’re trying to leave open those deeper waters. In addition, they propose to open up waters beyond our current limit line. It would open up several of SoCal’s isolated banks – the 14-mile and 9-mile – a big bonus out of San Diego. Up north where depth lines are shallower, it opens quite a bit of turf too.

But this same range of options require closing access to the nearshore complex and waters inshore of 50 fathoms for all but 2 to 4 months – devastating for our fleet and anglers who depend on that access. Those deeper waters are almost always in weather-exposed places and might be many miles offshore.

Federal regulations are set in 2-year chunks, so for 2023 and 2024. But, there’s an additional management tweak possible called “in-season action.” It’s used to modify bag limits and such “in season,” that is, within the 2-year chunk.

In-season action is used to open up access when it’s clear a fishery won’t come close to going over, or on the other hand, when a hard cap, like the 12mt yelloweye cap, is reached. Hitting a hard cap actually ends season early on short notice.

Mike Thompson asked Dr. John Harms, which hooks on their 5-hook, 7-foot, SoCal Shelf Rockfish Hook and Line Survey ganions the coppers bit most. It turned out 80% were on the bottom two hooks. With just 10% on the third, it meant 90% of the coppers were caught within 4 feet of the sinker!

A short breakaway between the weight and hooks could reduce the number of coppers caught by up to 90%! Quillbacks are crevice crawlers like coppers too.

Industry reps like myself, Joe Villareal with Mirage Sportfishing, Ken Franke, and Mike Thompson at Newport Landing, suggested to CDFW staff that we could keep our recreational copper and quill catches down by modifying gear, descending device use and releasing all coppers this year. We asked, if we were to keep our catches under the 91-ton target, could we keep our current inshore season lengths.

Leaders like Marci Yaremko, CDFW Director’s designee to the PFMC, were strongly supportive of the idea – it could work. CDFW staff offered to help us get it done.

It’s no secret the CDFW was just as disappointed by what they were having to propose as we were on seeing those proposals.

We need to prove we can keep copper and quillback catches down without a shortened season. CDFW’s part includes fast tracking data analyses when the resulting 2022 numbers are in.

We’d then pursue in-season action to modify the outcome of the federal 2-year process. This is our challenge and chance to save our seasons.

The SAC and Golden Gate Fisherman’s Association strategy is 3 pronged.

  1. Stay away from spots with lots.
  2. Use a 6-foot breakaway leader when fishing cods.
  3. Descend all coppers back to depth to get the maximum release credit available.

Spread the word. The goal is to support an all-depth fishery for as many months as possible. Keeping coppers and quillbacks off the lines is the key.

The more we do on our own for conservation, the less the law has to step in with the axe.

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat 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. He serves on the Groundfish Advisory sub-Panel of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the Santa Barbara Harbor Commission, The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council and the CCA-Cal State Board. He can be reached at: merit@wonews.com.

THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA Shelf Rockfish Survey doesn’t get many coppers because those shelf species live at the deeper edge of copper country. But they get a few, and these all come on their bottommost hooks. So a short breakaway between your sinker and hooks will keep coppers uncaught, and that will get us more months rockfish in waters less than 300 feet deep.
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