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Data-poor model threatens rockfish seasons

he Pacific States have over 100+ species of fish, about 50+ of which have Commercial and Recreational interest. These include flatfish, roundfish , bottomfish, pelagics, migratory species and forage fish. Each year the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) produces a document in mid-year that looks at each species and gives a current status on the stock, when it was last assessed, its vulnerability and general information about the health of the stock. In total this is titled a Stock Analysis and Fishery Evaluation (S.A.F.E.) document.

There is a tremendous amount of detailed and scientific information in this document that guides the PFMC (Council) with Management assistance. It covers all the overfished species (seven currently), and all the non-overfished species that have Commercial or Recreational value.

China Rockfish, Wikipedia, Tom Marking, Poor-data modeling threatens rockfish seasons
North Coast anglers could be facing a 25 percent closure of rockfish seasons due to computer modeling instead of hard science. Photo of China Rockfish Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Magnuson-Stevens ACT (MSA) mandates that we prevent overfishing, and this document is a key element in the pursuit of that goal. Of the species that are overfished, they are all rebuilding, some much faster than others, depending upon their recruitment, age to sexual maturity, productiveness, vulnerability etc. Yelloweye in the north and cowcod in the south are the two that are projected to be the slowest to rebuild.

At the Upper Limit
For the Northern CA area, with the exception of Canary and Yelloweye, we have relatively healthy stocks. Ling cod are in abundance, and from what the hook and line Commercial guys say, so are the kelp greenling. The black rockfish are certainly healthy, but probably consist of about 98% of the rockfish bag limit, and due to that pressure, we are right at the upper limit of harvest each year for that stock. The Council sets an Annual Catch Limit (ACL) that cannot be exceeded and is designed to keep the stock healthy and productive. The SAFE document provides pertinent information of the life history and productivity of each stock and the various models used to estimate biomass, spawning biomass, depletion, mortality, recruitment, mean generation time and a host of other terms of interest.

Data-Poor Model
The data used to calculate catch, mortality and population estimations come from historic catch records, current harvest levels, log book data from Commercial and Charter Boats, dock tickets on sales, research trawl data and known life history information. As can be imagined, much of this is not known and has to be estimated, or give a “proxy value” that is plugged into the various models to generate the needed projections. Statisticians have elevated models to an art form, and they are debated constantly for accuracy and appropriateness. The MSA mandates that species are to have an appropriate ACL, or harvest level, and the models are how this value is determined. In the last biennial cycle in 2012, two new models (data moderate and data poor) were approved by the Council on how to treat stocks with little to varying amounts of data available. These two models are self-explanatory but have very serious repercussions on the harvest levels.

China Fish may be next restriction
In the June 2014 SAFE document, the near-shore rockfish complex came up for review, and since little is known about the eleven species of rockfish in this complex, the data-moderate and data-poor models were used for the various species within this complex. When little data is known, this increases the level of “Uncertainty” and so the Managers recommend more conservative values of harvest to be certain that overfishing is not occurring. The most serious candidate for causing trouble this year is the China Rockfish. Since it is caught in the shallow nearshore area, there is no trawl history data, limited Commercial hook and line data, and recreational catch data is very sketchy. This places it in a data poor stock analysis. And, to the shock of WA State officials, the data poor model suggests that the harvest be reduced from 4 metric tons to 1.62 mt in their State. That will dramatically shorten their season length and management concerns. In fact, for all the three Pacific States, these two models suggest the harvest of these eleven species be reduced from 94 mt to 69 mt in 2015. That is a 25% reduction and it remains to be seen how this will be handled next year. OR and WA have requested of NMFS that the two states have a co-management strategy and when 62 mt are caught next year, they will collaborate with each other on what is left so as not to exceed the new ACL of 89 mt. CA will remain under the Federal Management Method, but will have to reduce 25% harvest as well.

[Author's Note: Clarification:
The complex is the minor nearshore group. Blacks, blues, vermillions are not at risk. The minor nearshore will have a 25% harvest reduction to 69 mt. Unknown is what happens when we reach that mark in late June or July. As we catch blacks, blues etc, we will be catching some minor nearshore and we will be charged with a 22% mortality rate. Will a no retention be acceptable for the nearshore species or will NMFS require shortening ALL rockfishing? No one can answer that question at present and that is a serious question. I think they will let the 2015 season play out and see what happens and then make adjustments in 2016. They are all hedging their answers to this question currently. If we continue to harvest as usual, we could reach the 75% level by mid to late June!]

Eleven species
This is just one example of how modeling can impact both the Commercial and Recreational sectors. Management may consist of just making these eleven species a “no take” situation, and have to be released if caught, or if the ACL is exceeded for the Complex the fishing seasons could be curtailed in all three States.

<< Kelp Greenling photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Such analysis concerns are becoming common at the PFMC and we are seeing more species falling out as “constraining” due to the increasing levels of uncertainty and modeling. The SAFE document is the base document for many of these decisions, so it is much more than just a reference document. If you care to peruse the document go to the website and look for the SAFE document history file. The current SAFE document for 2014 can be located in the right hand margin of the home page. It makes for some very interesting reading and can inform you on any particular species you want more specific information about. This document is generated and updated each year and is a valuable and useful tool assisting the Council in Management Decisions for the upcoming year. However, very conservative modeling is creating serious problems for a number of species that are having substantial impacts on the ability of the Commercial Fleet to harvest their target species, and are reducing time and depth opportunity for Recreational Anglers to pursue their efforts. Increasingly Complex Regulations are having a serious impact. While stocks are rebuilding overall, instances can occur where unnecessary over regulation is causing substantial economic harm and damage to the fleet and fishing communities. Perhaps the MSA renewal this next Congressional session will help to alleviate some of these concerns.

Send emails to CA DFW & your State representatives
Angler education and participation is a key part of this process, so it is important to be informed. Let your State Officials know of your concerns and needs with emails or letters. CDFW has contact information on their website for public comment on Commission and PFMC meetings and decisions.

Tom Marking is a past Board Member of the Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers with a membership of about 500 local anglers. In addition, he is also a member of GAP the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel, serving as the CA Sportfishing Representative.


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