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Change to rockfish limits should keep year-round season

Oregon ocean anglers are facing changes in rockfish bag limits that will change the species of fish they take home but not likely the overall numbers as part of a strategy to keep from encountering the first mid-season shutdown in bottomfishing in 13 years.

A 10-percent reduction in the federal quota for black rockfish has state fish managers calling for a drop from seven to six black rockfish in the overall marine daily bag limit.

However, to make up for not keeping that seventh black rockfish, fish managers plan to remove the sub-bag limit on canary rockfish and add China, quillback and copper rockfishes to the current limit on blue/Deacon rockfish and increase that sub-bag from three to four.

The result is that anglers who are used to releasing a few canaries before catching their seventh black rockfish will simply fill out their seven-fish limit with at least one fish of a different variety.

"That should take a little pressure off the black rockfish," says Maggie Sommer, marine fisheries manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We need to see a decrease in that catch."

If Oregon anglers reach the quota of 400 metric tons of black rockfish, then all bottomfishing will halt like it did in 2004 when the black rockfish quota was filled and the season abruptly closed on the eve of Labor Day weekend, one of the busiest sport-fishing weekends on the South Coast.

This year's quota was 440.8 metric tons, and anglers through October had caught an estimated 425 metric tons of black rockfish, so the season would likely have closed around Labor Day had next year's quota been applied this year.

That's why the recommendations are getting support from charter-boat operators like Andy Martin of Brookings, where ocean anglers are relying increasingly more on rockfish amid lulls in offshore salmon seasons.

"An in-season closure of rockfish seasons would be devastating to the Oregon Coast charter-boat fleet, as well as coastal businesses that rely on sport fishing, especially with the anticipated restrictions of ocean salmon seasons," Martin says.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled today to vote on the suite of proposed changes for 2017.

The package also includes a proposed requirement that anglers fishing outside of 30 fathoms use descending devices to help ensure more released fish survive barotrauma deaths. The devices, which cost anywhere from $5 to $50, greatly increase survival rates in rockfish reeled up from deep water.

The last time sport anglers flirted with a shutdown came in 2011, when ODFW invoked the 20-fathom restriction to protect yelloweyes from being over-fished. That change, along with consistent use of descending devices while releasing yelloweyes, helped keep the season open for the rest of that year.

Black rockfish are by far the fish taken home most by Oregon's ocean anglers, and the proposed changes aren't because these slow-growing critters are in peril.

A 2015 National Marine Fisheries Service assessment showed that the local black rockfish population was healthy and productive but smaller overall than past estimates, Sommer says.

"It's not that we think the stock is over-fished," Sommer says.

Sommer says computer modeling shows Oregon's recreational fleet likely will flirt with filling the 2017 quota by year's end. That's even more likely as ocean anglers are likely facing even tighter seasons on chinook and coho salmon next year.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in sport bottomfishing effort in the past few years, and it's correlated in the drop in salmon," Sommer says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.