NOAA Fisheries last week removed Puget Sound canary rockfish from the federal list of threatened and endangered species after a recent collaborative study found those fish are not genetically distinct from other canary rockfish on the West Coast.
Although many state rockfish populations have declined in abundance, the agency determined that the canary rockfish population in Puget Sound and the inland waters of British Columbia does not qualify for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), because it is not “discrete from” the species as a whole.
“The recent genetic findings show that canary rockfish of the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin are actually part of the larger canary rockfish population along the Pacific Coast,” said Dan Tonnes of NOAA Fisheries. “Coastal canary rockfish were determined to be rebuilt under the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 2016.”
NOAA’s action does not affect state fishing restrictions on rockfish in Puget Sound, which prohibit anglers from targeting, possessing or retaining any rockfish species, because yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio remain listed under the ESA. State regulations also prohibit recreational fisheries from targeting rockfish in the Sound, and do not allow recreational bottom-fishing below 120 feet.
In 2010, NOAA listed canary rockfish, yelloweye rockfish, and bocaccio in the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin under the ESA as “distinct population segments,” presuming that they were genetically discrete from the rest of the species. Without species-specific genetic studies to draw on, this presumption was based on genetic variation among populations of other rockfish species.
To test that premise, the agency’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle launched a cooperative study in 2015 to gather and study samples from listed rockfish in the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin and from reference areas outside that area to better understand their genetic diversity. Canadian authorities also provided biological samples of rockfish from the inland waters of the Georgia Strait.
The study drew on the expertise of local fishing guides, along with members of the Puget Sound Anglers and Kitsap Pogie fishing clubs to catch enough canary and yelloweye rockfish to conduct the genetic analysis using small tissue samples taken from the fins of each fish.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), another partner in the study, compiled data on ESA-listed rockfish in the area from previous surveys and deployed a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) below the surface of the Sound to locate rockfish and guide test fishers to their location.
“By combining the at-sea experience of long-time bottomfish anglers with the scientific knowledge of the WDFW, we were successfully able to locate and sample hundreds of fish,” said Dayv Lowry, WDFW senior research scientist. “It was a perfect example of collaboration and cooperation in search of actionable knowledge for rockfish management.”
Rockfish caught for the study were handled carefully and released using a special descending device to avoid barotrauma, which is caused by the change in air pressure when a fish is brought from deep waters to the surface. Fish were also marked for identification with an external tag, and several of those fish were sighted by the WDFW during subsequent ROV surveys.
The analysis showed that Puget Sound canary rockfish are not genetically distinct from canary rockfish on the West Coast, but affirmed that yelloweye rockfish in those waters are genetically distinct from coastal populations, and will therefore remain listed under the ESA. Bocaccio will also remain listed, because too few of them were found during the study to conduct a thorough analysis or change their status.
Rockfish are long-lived fish that reproduce slowly and play an important role in the Puget Sound ecosystem. Research indicates that total abundance of rockfish in Puget Sound has dropped approximately 70 percent in the last 40 years.
NOAA Fisheries is developing a recovery plan for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio that will serve as a roadmap for conservation and recovery of these species.