In a decision environmentalists portrayed as a major victory in their fight to protect dwindling marine fish populations, a federal judge has issued a ruling that could slash commercial catches of two species of threatened Pacific rockfish.
Conservationists say they hope to use the ruling to halt overfishing of the West Coast's numerous rockfish species.
U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson of San Francisco determined that the National Marine Fisheries Service -- the agency responsible for managing marine fisheries in U.S. waters -- failed to take into account "bycatch" in setting quotas for lingcod and bocaccio, two rockfish species that are in particularly steep decline.
Larson ordered the agency to reassess bocaccio and lingcod quotas.
Bycatch is a term applied to fish that are unintentionally caught by commercial fishermen. Most bycatch fish are discarded overboard.
A coalition of environmentalists sued the fisheries agency in January for not enforcing federal bycatch rules.
"We have a pretty good law on bycatch, but it wasn't being enforced," said Mark Powell, a biologist with the Ocean Conservancy, a group that was part of the coalition that filed the suit.
"The regulations say fisheries managers must accurately report on the amount of bycatch and reduce it where practical," Powell said. "But the fisheries agencies have bowed to pressure from the fishing industry, and they've been reluctant to count bycatch. Now, finally, a federal judge says this has to end."
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the Fisheries Service, said agency directors were still studying the decision.
"This is a case we lost, and it's disappointing," Gorman said. "There has always been a big question about bycatch -- it's the bugbear of commercial fishing. In part we don't know the precise role it plays, and in part the fishermen don't have total control over it. We and the fishing industry are still wrestling with it."
There are 82 species of rockfish that are commercially significant along the Pacific Coast, and many have experienced drastic population declines over the past 30 years.
The Fisheries Service has studied 16 species extensively so far, and has declared seven as overfished.
Most scientists think bocaccio -- large, streamlined rockfish often served as red snapper -- are now at no more than 2 percent of their 1969 populations. The bigheaded lingcod, an ugly fish nevertheless renowned for its succulence, is at 15 percent.
Scientists say there are two primary reasons for the decline: overfishing and warmer ocean waters.
Once abundant, rockfish are long-lived and slow to reach sexual maturity. Heavy fishing can rapidly deplete consecutive generations of fish.
"Bocaccio live up to 38 years and lingcod up to 20 years," said Powell. "Neither reproduces successfully every year -- especially bocaccio, which may have a good reproduction year only once a decade or so. The only way to fish these guys is very, very slowly, taking no more than 1 percent of the total stocks a year. "
Rockfish also suffer during El Nino events, because warm water prevents the upwelling of nutrient-laden cold water, diminishing the availability of forage fish.
There was little surprise in the commercial fishing community about the ruling.
"Our quota was so low last year that it wasn't even worth gearing up and going fishing," said Barbara Stickel, a fisher who works out of Morro Bay with her husband, Tom.
Not too many years ago, said Stickel, rockfish constituted two-thirds of her annual income.
"But I doubt we'll be able to fish rockfish again in my lifetime," she said,
"because of the depressed stocks and the recovery plans now in development. There have been some good spawns in recent years -- but I do think the fish are generally in bad shape."
Stickel said not enough attention was being paid to the worst bycatch offenders.
"We were fishing near San Simeon for salmon earlier this year, and we saw where a prawn trawler went through -- there were dead young rockfish everywhere," she said.
It may take decades for rockfish to rebound even if tough fishing strictures are enforced, said Powell.
"The sad thing is that this is nothing new," he said. "A paper was published in 1984 that accurately predicted the dilemma we're in now. People saw it coming a long time ago."
E-mail Glen Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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