Charters, longliners reach rockfish compromise

Fish descenders, or safe-release devices, are displayed at the Board of Fisheries meeting in Ketchikan. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld.

Guided fishermen will have to return deep-water rockfish to a safe depth under a plan approved this week by Alaska’s Board of Fisheries. The proposal is an unusual compromise between longliners and charter-boat operators.

Yelloweye live a couple hundred feet below the ocean’s surface. So the rockfish usually die when they’re reeled in – because of the difference in pressure.

That occurs when fishermen are over their limit and throw them back.

“It does happen relatively frequently, particularly with declining halibut stocks, there’s increased pressure on DSR resources,” says Heath Hilyard, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.

The group, called SEAGO, represents about 40 regional charter-boat operators.

DSR is short for demersal shelf rockfish, a group of near-shore bottom-dwellers.  Yelloweye are the most sought. They’re sometimes called Pacific red snapper or red rock cod.

Yelloweye rockfish. ADF&G photo.

A variety of devices can be used to return the rockfish safely. The most basic are weighted milk crates.

“Essentially, they are put in the crates upside down, dropped and then they pull the line back up and the fish can swim away at depth, increasing survivability,” he says. “There’s reverse hooks and a variety of different mechanisms that can be used. Ultimately, you bring the fish back down to a reasonable depth to where they can survive and then pull back the line.”

He says up to 90 percent of caught rockfish survive when quickly returned to deep waters. Only about 10 percent make it when released on the surface.

The Board of Fisheries considered several yelloweye proposals at its Ketchikan meeting.

One, from the charter group, would have increased the sport allocation at the expense of the commercial sector. It was unanimously voted down.

A closeup of EcoLeeser, one brand of fish-release device.

Two others, one from the guides group and the other from Sitka’s board advisory committee, required safe, deep rockfish release.

The approved measure was a compromise among charter and commercial interests.

The conflict came before the fish board about half-a-dozen years ago.

“And at that time the board told both of us to figure out a way to live within your allocation,” says Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, known as ALFA.

She says commercial fishermen put together a conservation network. It began mapping the seafloor, identifying where the accidental yelloweye harvests are high.

“Fishermen are moving their gear out of the high bycatch areas. We saw a 20 percent reduction in the bycatch rate of the fishermen participating in this network. The commercial fleet has not been over its allocation in the last six years,” she says.

She says her group was unhappy charter operators wanted to increase their take after several years of exceeded allocations.

Despite many battles over halibut, longliners and charter groups worked together on the compromise that was passed.

Behnken says the plan originally included individual sport fishermen. But that changed on the advice of Department of Fish and Game staff.

“They suggested we make it charter-only because of the implications of educating every sport angler about having to have one of these devices and release at depth. Then we both signed on,” she says.

Longliners mostly target halibut, not yelloweye, so their harvest is bycatch they’re allowed to keep, within limits.

But the guide organization’s Hilyard says more charters are chasing the rockfish.

“It’s not a species that a lot of our guys go out of their way to target. But it’s a natural bycatch for halibut. And with halibut declining, there’s increased pressure because it’s an additional species that clients can catch,” he says.

The safe-release requirement goes into effect next year. Hillyard calls it a key conservation measure.

See a video of how a fish descender works.

Read or hear related reports:

Sides in herring debate take case to Board of Fish

Board allows Jensen to vote on herring issues

Fish board OKs some Sitka herring changes


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