The ROCKFISH Files: Documents show the Pacific Fishery Management Council ignored scientific advice as it let the bottom dwellers crash

In 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared a disaster in the groundfish fisheries off the West Coast. For many communities, the collapse of those fish stocks was a tragedy, but documents show that it was not an accident.

Fishing industry leaders have controlled most seats on the Pacific Fishery Management Council since Congress created it in 1976. Its job is to protect the ocean by regulating commercial and recreational fishing off California, Oregon and Washington. Over the years, the council has repeatedly jacked up fishing quotas against the advice of its own scientists, according to new research by Josh Eagle, coordinator of the Stanford Fisheries Policy Project at Stanford Law School.

And now nine species are overfished.

Eagle followed a paper trail nearly 25 years old. Through time, he pulled together the story of the widow rockfish, one of nine species that's been a victim of overfishing.

While commercial trawlers gobbled up three-fourths of the widow's population, the Pacific council gambled with the widow's future. In six of 19 years, the council set quotas that scientists thought were too large to sustain. In other years, the council set quotas as high as the scientists would allow. The council's approach, Eagle says, was hardly precautionary.

Congress reacted to the groundfish disaster by providing $46 million in cash and loans to buyout vessels to reduce the size of the groundfish fleet. The money comes as loans to be repaid by vessels that continue to fish. Millions more is paying for observers on vessels to improve the accuracy of data on the fish being caught.

Fishing continues on the depleted stocks. In 2004, West Coast commercial and recreational fishing will destroy projected more than 1,600 tons of the eight most depleted stocks off California, Oregon and Washington, as the chart on Page 9 shows. They all live among the rocky Continental Shelf or further out on the steep slope that dives toward the deep-sea floor.

The fishery councils prefer to talk about the weight of the annual catch, rather than the number fish that are killed. It uses such jargon as “bycatch,” which means fish and other animals that can't legally be kept and sold. These mostly dead animals are dumped back to sea.

Ships used to fib about the amount of bycatch. Today an observer program is in place to make them more honest. To be fair, in some cases they were truthfully accounting for the entire bycatch all along. But new statistics show they've been throwing some species overboard at a rate of four times greater than the amount they were reporting.

By failing to report bycatch, a vessel can fish longer before filling its quotas, and thus earn more money.

Efforts to end these discrepancies began in 2001. Fish catch data are more accurate now, and gloomier. Fishing communities are subjected a more carefully managed cycle of boom-and-bust, as opposed to the more archaic cycles of the past. Yet the effect is just the same: people out of work, fishing communities depressed, millions of investment dollars wasted.

Then there's the plight of the fish. The widow rockfish live to be nearly 60 years old and are found from Baja California to Kodiak Island, Alaska. Large schools aggregate off northern Oregon and southern Washington, and in south to central California. Large midwater schools form at night, over bottom features such as ridges or large mounds near the shelf break. Most fisherman did not know they were there — until 1979.

This development came about while the fishery councils were in their infancy. The Pacific council did little to slow down the onslaught. Trawlers landed more than 3,000 tons in 1979, 20,000 tons in 1980, and 28,000 tons in 1981. The size of the fleet leaped from nine in 1979 to 70 in just three years.

Scientists, worried by the sudden increase in the catch, asked the Pacific council set a limit of 18,300 in 1982. But the council heard people from the fishing industry predict an economic disaster, as they always do when someone tries to shut down a fishery for the sake of conservation. That year, the Pacific council set a quota of 26,000 tons of widow rockfish, nearly 60 percent more than recommended.

Over the next two decades, the council allowed catches exceeding the recommended safe catch by almost 15,000 metric tons, or over 8% of the recommended safe catch, Eagle says in his paper.

Even the scientists gave weight to economics. Their recommendations to the Pacific council were, on average, significantly higher than the mid-point of acceptable ranges.

“Although there may have been non-political explanations for these seemingly high point recommendations (including the method of calculating the range), it would not be surprising if the scientific advisors had felt political pressure, whether or not overt,” Eagle writes.

Other major species in West Coast fisheries fared just as poorly at the hands of the council. The most notable is bocaccio, once the most important rockfish caught off California.

Landings peaked in 1983 at 6,700 tons. By 2000, the population declined to barely above 2 percent of what it would have been if there had never been any fishing.

Milton Love, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the recreational anglers of Southern California are at least partially responsible. “We're talking millions of anglers,” he says. “They have contributed to this problem for many species.”

This year, the Pacific council learned that bocaccio is in better shape than they thought, but still in dire straits. They are in very bad, rather than extremely horrible, shape. In response to that good news, the council decided to let fishers kill more bocaccio. They opened shallower ocean waters to fishing. This means that species such as vermilion rockfish that live in the shallower water will be more vulnerable as well. The council says vermilion are healthy, but it has no idea about the condition of other fish that live among vermilion, such as the green-stripe and blue rockfish, Love says.

Even more worrisome is the shrinking size of each rockfish. Fishers are landing younger and smaller fish, meaning fewer adults are left. Mark Hixon, Ph.D., a biologist at Oregon State University, says an older rockfish can produce more than 1 million eggs at one time. A young adult female will produce fewer than 100,000.

Increasingly, fishers are killing the fawns of the sea because the bucks are dead and gone.

Hixon says the Pacific Council routinely allows stocks to be "fished-down" as much as possible. The Council sometimes uses models with "simplistic" assumptions that are "woefully flawed" because they examine only one species at a time, rather than considering the ecological community in which each species lives, he says. The models also ignore habitat issues, rarely consider the constantly changing ocean environment, and fail to include the fact that "big old fat females produce eggs and larvae that grow faster and survive starvation better."

Documents obtained by the Ocean Conservancy and published in July 2002 by the North Coast Journal in Arcata, Calif., reveal that scientists had serious misgivings about the size of the bocaccio catch.

In 1988 and 1989, scientists worried that quotas “may be too high.” And in 1994 they wrote: “Biomass has declined substantially since 1980 and is approaching 20 percent of its estimated unfished level. There is some risk in maintaining harvests at this level.”

Bocaccio's prospects may have improved this year with new information suggesting the population may have been twice as large as thought just three years ago. With only 10 percent of any species remaining, the council's own rules call for zero fishing. Nevertheless, bocaccio catches in 2004 will be 250 metric tons. “They are violating their own management plan by allowing bocaccio mortality,” says Mark Powell of the Ocean Conservancy.

Lingcod, an overfished predator species, has been in decline, though it improved a little before this year. But fishers killed 51% more than the allowable optimum yield in 2002 and perhaps an even greater amount given total mortality for the species in all fisheries “We don’t rebuild species if we continue to do that,” says Peter Huhtala, executive director of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council based in Astoria. “This shows the management systems we have in place are not working.”

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