Pacific Coast Bottomfish

You've heard what the feds and the state won't let you catch off our coast this year. Here's what you can catch.

by Doug Rose

My dictionary defines disaster as "a grave occurrence having ruinous results." Three years ago, the Pacific Marine Fisheries Management Council used the word disaster to describe the status of bottomfish along the West Coast.

The PFMC was particularly concerned about the larger, deep-water species of rockfish such as cowcod, yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish and bocaccio, which it indicated had been reduced to such low population levels that they could support virtually no harvest. The most imperiled bottomfish, which agencies refer to as groundfish, are slow growing, territorial and inhabit water too deep to survive catch-and-release. For those reasons, the only management mechanisms available to restore the fish involved sacrifices by commercial and recreational fishing interests. They include seasonal and area closures, depth restrictions and outright fishing prohibitions.

For recreational, charter boat and commercial anglers alike, whose saltwater opportunity had been shrinking already, a mid-season adjustment last year and anticipated coast-wide closures in 2003 strongly suggested that Pacific Coast recreational angling was headed for disaster, as well.

"While there will be no one area that is closed to all fishing, all areas from 0 to 25 fathoms are likely to feel the effects of these changes," the council cautioned anglers last summer.

Fortunately, the widely anticipated closures that many recreational saltwater anglers were expecting for 2003 have largely been averted. The recreational bottomfish seasons this year in Washington, Oregon and northern California, in fact, will not look that much different from those in recent years. There will be increased monitoring in these areas, and if the projected harvests of yelloweye or canary rockfish are exceeded, the PFMC will impose depth restrictions or closures. But the popular deep-water fisheries for Pacific halibut and lingcod will occur this year in northern waters. The lack of immediate closures will also prevent the redirection of anglers toward shallow-water species that could have been harvested at unsustainable levels if the deep-water fisheries were closed.

"The main reason we didn't have to limit fishing to shallow depths was new assessment for yelloweye," said PFMC spokesman John DeVore.

The brunt of the conservation measures this year will fall on California anglers south of Cape Mendocino. They will experience significant seasonal and area prohibitions in 2003, continuing the trend that began in southern California in the 1990s with the creation of the 4,000-square mile Cowcod Conservation Area. Bocaccio rockfish are currently the species of most concern in southern California waters. Biologists claim that even if the harvest was reduced to zero, it would still take a century for the fish to recover.

The canary rockfish is one of the 65 rockfish species covered by the PFMC's groundfish management plan. Photo courtesy of CDFG

As a result, the California Department of Fish and Game proposed and the PFMC adopted, a California Rockfish Conservation Area (CRCA) that extends from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border and includes all water between 20 and 150 fathoms. Fishing for all bottom-dwelling species is prohibited within that area.

In addition, there will be a closed season for nearshore rockfish in waters shallower than 20 fathoms, and anglers will have to distinguish between deeper and shallower nearshore species of rockfish. This measure was taken to protect the nearshore species from overharvest as anglers redirect their effort away from deep-water species.

"It affects a huge area," said Deborah Wilson-Vendenberg, a California DFG research manager. "One of the areas hardest hit will be Morro Bay. It will also have a big impact in southern California during January and February."

Despite the new regulations, southern California saltwater anglers will still be able to pursue the many species of nearshore bottomfish, including rockfish, most of which are in good shape.

Wilson-Vandenberg adds that marine species that are traditionally fished on the surface, such as tuna and mackerel, will still be available, even within the conservation areas. And non-rockfish nearshore species, such as California halibut, corbina and sand and kelp bass, will continue to provide excellent sport for beach, pier and jetty anglers.

Bottomfish I.D.

Can you tell the difference between canary and yelloweye rockfish? Quickly? With certainty? As a boat pitches to and fro?


For ages Pacific Coast anglers have lumped all large, red-bodied rockfish under the meaningless generic term "red snapper." Black and blue rockfish similarly have been called "sea bass," and brownish nearshore species are collectively called "rock cod." Such colloquialisms were adequate in the past, but fishing today requires a much more sophisticated understanding of bottomfish species.


"We have high-resolution photos on our website, and all of the states are trying to get information out to fishermen," said Pacific Fishery Management Council spokesman John DeVore. "People are going to have to learn their rockfish."


Fish identification is easy with Peterson's field guide, Pacific Coast Fishes of North America. Web sites by the PFMC ( and California DFG ( also include photos and descriptions of bottomfish. -- Doug Rose


Indeed, now that the dust has settled, it has become clear that, while there have been major changes, West Coast saltwater anglers still enjoy a wealth of opportunity in 2003. Game & Fish has spoken to fish managers, char

ter operators and anglers in Washington, Oregon and California and identified some of the best saltwater angling available for the coming season.

Southern California
The most populated region of the Pacific Coast, perhaps not surprisingly, also has the most complicated fishing regulations. "The most severe restrictions will be imposed on fisheries operating in waters off California south of Cape Mendocino mainly to keep from overharvesting bocaccio, but to also give further protection to other overfished rockfish species found on the continental shelf and slope," the council announced at its September meeting.

The other deep-water species of rockfish that inhabit the deeper waters within the CRCA include species such as yelloweye, canary and darkblotched rockfish, as well as cowcod. All of these species have been popular with larger boats and the charter fleet.

"The centerpiece of Council action was the adoption of depth-based restrictions that seasonally move fisheries that catch these overfished stock out of the depth zones they inhabit," the PFMC reported.

Concerns that the closure of deep-water groundfish zones could result in an unsustainable shift of effort to shallow-water species, particularly rockfish, prompted the California DFG and the PFMC to implement more conservative harvest guidelines within the 0- to 20-fathom zone. The proposed changes divide the 13 species of nearshore rockfish into "shallow nearshore rockfish," which inhabit the 0- to 20-fathom zone year-round, and "deeper nearshore rockfish," that migrate into shallow water seasonally. The shallow nearshore group includes black and yellow, China, grass, gopher and kelp rockfishes, while the deeper water group is comprised of black, blue, brown, calico, copper, olive, treefish and quillback rockfishes.

In waters south of Cape Mendocino, the 2003 recreational season for nearshore rockfish will run from July through December, with a daily bag of 10 fish. Only two of the daily limit may be from the shallow-water nearshore group, and there is a sub-limit of two greenling and three cabezon daily.

Angling for California scorpionfish will also be restricted to waters less than 20 fathoms, except for the Huntington Flats area (see regulations pamphlet), and the season will extend from July through February. The lingcod season will be concurrent with the rockfish season, and there will be a two-fish daily limit and a 24-inch minimum size. No bocaccio, canary rockfish, cowcod or yelloweye rockfish may be retained in any waters south of Cape Mendocino this year.

Of course, southern California waters contain scores of species besides rockfish, and many of them provide excellent fisheries. Stocks of California halibut are in excellent shape, for example. In recent years, a growing number of anglers have begun to focus upon corvina; even flyfishers are now taking these surf battlers. Bridge and pier fishers also target sheepshead, cabezon, greenling and a host of other abundant and responsive nearshore marine species.

Northern California & Oregon
In recent years, northern California and Oregon have operated with similar regulations for recreational bottomfish, and they will do so again in 2003.

The species of greatest concern in these waters are the canary and yelloweye rockfish, which inhabit the Continental Shelf, and darkblotch rockfish, which are found on the deeper water off the slope of the shelf. However, recent investigations have suggested that these stocks are not as threatened as previously believed, and there will, consequently, be no depth or seasonal restrictions imposed north of Cape Mendocino this year. If the harvest of canary or yelloweye rockfish in northern California or Oregon exceeds the guidelines adopted by the PFMC, however, there will be an in-season closure outside of 27 fathoms.

California anglers north of Cape Mendocino will be able to harvest 20 marine fish daily, with a limit of 10 rockfish and a sub-limit of one canary and one yelloweye rockfish. Blue and black rockfish are by far the most avidly pursued nearshore rockfish in northern California; they account for 53.7 out of a total of 58.7 metric tons of the proposed recreational harvest under the PFMC's 2003 guidelines. There will also be a 20-fish bag and a 24-inch minimum size for lingcod; a 10-fish limit and 15-inch minimum for cabezon; and a limit of 10 greenling.

The daily bag limit in Oregon coastal waters will be 10 fish, excluding salmon, lingcod, tuna, surfperch, sanddab and baitfish. As in California, there will be a limit of one canary rockfish and one yelloweye daily. During the all-depth Pacific halibut season, neither canary nor yelloweye rockfish may be retained, and the first halibut over 32 inches must be included in the 10 marine fish daily bag. Two lingcod over 24 inches may be retained daily in Oregon waters. Beaver State anglers are also expected to focus the overwhelming bulk of their attention on black and blue rockfish, which will comprise 384 of 395 metric tons of nearshore species in this year's harvest guidelines. Cabezon, greenling and other nearshore rockfish make up the rest of the harvest, and Oregon will devise new regulations for nearshore waters for the coming season.

Of course, veteran saltwater anglers may wonder about the point of regulations that allow anglers to fish for lingcod or halibut in the same deep water habitat as yelloweye and canary rockfish and that require them to release any rockfish taken over the limit. "The regulations are strictly to limit targeting the fish," said Bob Hannah, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife marine biologist. "There is no presumption that the fish will survive."

Washington's Coastal Bottomfish
As populations of groundfish have declined in Washington's Puget Sound, the majority of recreational bottomfish effort has been directed at the relatively healthy stocks in the Pacific Ocean off the state's north and south coasts.

Although there will be no widespread depth or seasonal prohibitions on rockfish in coastal waters this year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife will expand the size of the North Coast's Yelloweye Conservation Area, where all bottom fishing is prohibited. Additionally, the WDFW will monitor charter and private boat halibut activity, and if the incidental harvest of yelloweye rockfish is projected to exceed guidelines, recreational halibut fishing will close outside of 25 fathoms.

The combined daily bag of bottomfish off the Washington coast in 2003 will be 15 fish, with a sub-limit of 10 rockfish. There will be no harvest of yelloweye rockfish this year, the species of concern in coastal Washington. However, anglers will be able to take one canary rockfish as part of their 10 rockfish daily bag. The season for lingcod will run March 16 to Oct. 15, and there is a 24-inch minimum and daily limit of two fish. The dates for the halibut season and the recreational quota were not available before the deadline for this issue.

There is little private boat angling along Washington's north coast, which is largely within the boundaries of Olympic National Park or Indian reservation, and where boat-launching f

acilities are all but non-existent. The most intense bottomfish effort in this area is based out of Neah Bay, on the Makah Reservation, and Pacific halibut are the main attraction. Last summer, there was deep concern among both the charter fleet and individual boat owners that the anticipated sweeping bottomfish closures would eliminate the area's extremely productive spring and summer halibut fishery. However, the most recent yelloweye surveys suggested that the large "red snapper," as yelloweye are referred to in Washington, are in better shape than previous estimates. As a result, the halibut fishery will occur this year. (Check the website for 2003 Yelloweye Conservation Area boundaries.)

South of the Olympic Peninsula, the Washington coast flattens, becomes sandier and is dominated by two sprawling bays - Grays Harbor and Willapa. The south coast is the site of the historically huge charter boat fleets of Westport and Ilwaco. Salmon, of course, were the traditional targets of these charters, and in recent years, as the runs of hatchery salmon have increased, salmon have once again become king. But bottomfish assumed a larger and larger role in the recreational fishery during the salmon's lean years, and many anglers who travel to these ports now expect bottomfish as part of a day's trip.

Black rockfish are the most abundant and provide the bulk of the take. Lingcod and, to a lesser extent, halibut round out the fishery, and growing numbers of recreational anglers pursue them.

Unlike the north Washington coast, there is ample opportunity for anglers without boats in this area. Rockfish are routinely taken from the jetties at Westport, and red-tailed surfperch are a favorite of beach anglers on the Long Beach Peninsula.

As in recent years, the saltwater bottomfish opportunities within Puget Sound will be restricted. The current limit of one rockfish daily in Marine Area 13 effectively eliminates a serious targeted effort at the region's depleted nearshore species such as quillback and copper rockfish. Pacific cod, which as recently as 20 years ago were plentiful in places like Agate Pass, Green Point and Discovery Bay, are now a thing of the past. Even the once legendary bottomfish grounds of the San Juan Islands are now managed under tight regulations, and San Juan County has instituted a number of "no harvest" marine preserves.

Lingcod and halibut are available in Puget Sound for a short springtime season. Perhaps the least exploited bottomfish opportunity in Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the inside waters of Whidbey Island are for the various species of flatfish that are abundant over virtually all sand or mud bottoms.

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