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Short-bellied rockfish, an example of fisheries management under climate change

December 6 – A small, spiny fish that no one wants to catch has started appearing in trawls off the Oregon coast.

Short-bellied Rockfish are common off California, but were rare in Oregon until recently. Spurred on by several years of strong breeding, their apparent expansion into new territory has sparked discussion among west coast fisheries regulators and raised concerns for conservation groups.

He also provided a real-world example of the exact difficulty of managing fisheries as species and ocean conditions change due to climate change.

Short-bellied rockfish – a type of relatively short-lived groundfish that moves in large schools – has little market value. No one has even seemed interested in developing a fishery around them for decades and they aren’t at risk of being overfished, state biologists say.

When short-bellied rockfish are accidentally caught in other fisheries, their only commercial use is for fishmeal or fish oil, products made from fish by-products, low-value fish and fishery bycatch which is used as fertilizer and feed and in aquaculture.

But short-bellied rockfish are a critical food source for many seabirds, which are facing an overall population decline, as well as chinook salmon and other marine life.

The northward expansion of the shortbelly puts them on the path to the state’s midwater trawl fisheries. The Pacific whiting fishery began to record an increase in encounters with Short-bellied Rockfish starting in 2017.

Most of the lines that cling to the short belly can only land about 10 pounds of rockfish, but every once in a while there will be a big line – a thunderbolt – over 100,000 pounds.

Triggered a notice

The increasing number of short-bellied landings has triggered a review by the Pacific Fisheries Management Board.

The council, which recommends action to manage fisheries in federal waters off California, Oregon and Washington state, took several interim measures in 2019 and 2020 to protect the fish. They raised the annual catch limit and designated redfish as an ecosystem component species, a title that recognizes the value of shortbelly in the ecosystem as a forage fish but is not accompanied by specific fisheries management measures. .

Conservation groups argued that more proactive protection was needed.

The Audubon Society and Oceana have called for a ban that would prevent the creation of a fishery targeting short-bellied rockfish.

Right now, the shortbelly is almost useless for anglers. Pacific whiting vessels actively try to avoid them. When a vessel hits a school of small bellies, the spiny fish become entangled in the net, creating frustrating work for the crew and sometimes damaging more valuable fish around them.

But as interest in aquaculture opportunities and the demand for fishmeal and fish oil increase, conservation groups are worried about what the future may hold for them.

In November, the council further restricted fish catches and may consider considering a directed fishing ban for shortbelly next year.

It’s a partial victory, said Joe Liebezeit, scientist and bird conservation manager for Portland Audubon.

Anna Weinstein, director of marine conservation at the National Audubon Society, agrees. She said the council’s action offered some really meaningful guarantees and breaks.

But in light of climate change, “It’s more important than ever to be proactive on the foundation of the food chain that supports all the species we care about,” Weinstein said.

The council also does not want a targeted short-bellied rockfish fishery. However, a ban takes work and would require in-depth analysis of the data, some of which is not readily available on a short stomach. There has been no assessment of the fish stock since 2007.

“It looks like we should just be able to say, ‘You won’t go out and target the Short-bellied Rockfish,’” said Maggie Sommer, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a member of the Board of Trustees. Pacific fisheries management.

It is not so easy. Fisheries managers need to be clear about what they require and what they are implementing. They need to understand how changing the management of one species can impact and hamper other fisheries.

It is not yet clear why Short-bellied Rockfish are so abundant off the Oregon coast now, although warmer ocean waters associated with a marine heat wave that began in 2015 is likely a factor. What is evident is that the Short-bellied Rockfish had several very good breeding years and extended north of their historic range.

Caren Braby, marine program manager for the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, participated in the council’s discussions on various climate change scenarios for the West Coast fisheries.

With Shortbelly, she sees parallels to Oregon’s emerging market squid fishing.

Market squid landings have increased off Oregon for the past five years after decades of non-existence. Boats fishing for squid in the more typical range of animals off the California coast have moved north to take advantage of the boom.

The situation caught regulators off guard. Oregon did not have an established quota or fixed season for commercial squid. Suddenly, as landings continued to increase and the number of participating vessels increased, fisheries managers had to discuss a whole new set of management details.

As with the shortbelly, there are data gaps and uncertainties as to how the new management might impact the fisheries or benefit the animals in question.


This is the kind of dilemma that board members like Braby expect to see more under climate change and it further underscores the need to be nimble and flexible, she said. With climate change and changing ocean conditions, some species will thrive and others will fail. Many are expected to move to new areas.

There’s a really simple question, says Braby: “Are we going to see new species emerge in our landings?”

“And the answer,” she said, “is, ‘Sure.’ This is an example. “

“So the question really becomes: are we prepared with our management to lose cash? She added. “Are we prepared with our management to earn cash?” And the answer is, “not yet”, but we are thinking about it very seriously. “

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