Rockfish: Puget Sound’s latest endangered species?

Thursday, 23 April 2009 09:18

By Sally Deneen

PostGlobe

Years of badgering the federal government to take steps to save Puget Sound rockfish from extinction may finally pay off for retired fish biologist Sam Wright.

This week the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it will do as the retired fish biologist suggested: Consider protecting three local species of rockfish — canary, yelloweye and boccacio — under the Endangered Species Act. The fish have been caught at high levels, depleting their numbers.

It’s a big moment for Wright. While other retirees spend major hours playing golf or the like, Wright has devoted a big chunk of his golden years trying to save fish from extinction. He’s the guy who petitioned the government to protect Puget Sound steelhead — and was successful. Ditto for Puget Sound chinook.

Now he wants to save rockfish. But despite years of trying, he hadn’t broken through on saving the fast-depleting fish. Over the years he submitted three detailed petitions to try to get the federal government to protect rockfish, but was turned down each time. “They’ve been sitting on this problem for over 10 years,” Wright said.

The federal fisheries agency is still a long way from handing Wright and the rockfish a win. The agency now will take comments from the public through June 22 (at http://is.gd/tYHu ), and is expected to hear opposition from recreational anglers. Wright expects battles to come, just as critics emerged against the steelhead and chinook listings.

A final decision on whether to designate boccacio as “endangered” and the other two rockfish as “threatened” is expected to be made a year from now.

Puget Sound is home to 14 species of rockfish, only five of which are found in abundance, Wright says. That leaves nine species doing poorly in his eyes.

Rockfish – a long-lived, bottom-dwelling fish — mature and reproduce slowly, making them vulnerable to overfishing, according to the fisheries service.

While they haven’t been commercially fished in Puget Sound since the mid-1990s, the state allows a small recreational fishery, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the federal fisheries agency. And they’re unintentionally caught in other fisheries. Rockfish also are hampered by pollution and loss of eelgrass beds (read more about Puget Sound problems here: http://is.gd/tZQT ).

If Wright is successful and the three rockfish species gain protection a year from now, the agency says its initial focus will be on fishing practices in Puget Sound.

No one knows how many rockfish exist. Gorman says his agency deals more in trends than hard numbers. In Wright’s written request to the government ( http://is.gd/ub7I ), he states that at least 50,000 bocaccio, 15,608 canary rockfish and 8,761 yelloweye rockfish were caught during a 12-year period of 1975 to 1986. But he added that a state fish biologist since told the federal agency he has seen zero bococcio in the last two decades and the other two species have virtually disappeared.

“A fish population decline from 50,000 to zero should have been more than adequate proof of a legitimate problem,” Wright said.

Wright has also hoped to secure protections to greenstriped and redstriped rockfish, but agency scientists said they’re at “low risk” of extinction.

When asked why the federal agency didn’t act earlier, Gorman said Wright’s initial petition had incomplete information. “We asked him to expand on it, and he did,” Gorman says. The expanded information “persuaded us that we should take a good hard look at it.”

Orcas remain the most famous critters protected under the Endangered Species Act. Chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead and bull trout also already are protected in Puget Sound under the act.

“Obviously this is something that’s important to me,” said Wright, who spent many years as a fish biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and lives in Olympia.

“The real critical problem for rockfish is they have very small home ranges, and most of these nine species have home ranges like 30- and 40-foot in diameter,” Wright said. “So what happens when you get to be in very low abundance is you can’t find mates for your own species. So, there’s no chance for reproduction when you can’t find a mate.”

Wright separately proposed several months ago to impose an emergency stop on fishing for rockfish at depths greater than 120 feet, but was turned down by the state. Rockfish caught in shallower waters “have a pretty good chance of surviving” when released, Wright said. But when caught at depths greater than 120 feet, the lengthy retrieval kills them, he says.

California last year instituted a ban on fishing for groundfish in federal waters greater than 120 feet deep in northern California in a move to help protect yelloweye and canary rockfish (see http://is.gd/u0vc ).

“I’m retired. I don’t get paid a dime for any of this. And I didn’t get paid anything for doing the steelhead petition, and I didn’t get paid anything for doing the chinook petition,” Wright said, adding he was worked on the Chinook petition on the side on his own time while a state employee.

“I’ve worked on these things for 45 years, and when I see something that’s obviously wrong to me, I’ve got to correct it. Really, as a private individual, really the only mechanism that you’ve got is the Endangered Species Act. That’s the only way you can actually make a difference,” he said. Sitting on advisory committees doesn’t do it. “I’ve been part of them for 45 years, and I haven’t accomplished anything that route.”

One Response to Rockfish: Puget Sound’s latest endangered species?

  • Sally Deneen:

    …and can vouch for his honesty, intelligence, and
    scientific acumen. He has achieved successes in his long battle for recognizing
    endangered fish species, and it’s a tribute to his persistence, despite the
    naysayers that have attempted to block his every effort to save these threatened
    species.

    Good on you, Sam. Keep at ‘em!

    Tom Juelson