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Panel wants larger bottomfish bag limit

Oregon's ocean anglers likely will see bigger black rockfish bag limits this year, but they might again get pushed to near-shore fishing grounds much of the season under a new plan to take advantage of better rockfish stocks while protecting weaker ones.

A public-advisory committee last week recommended a boost to the black and blue rockfish limit from six fish to eight fish a day to take advantage of a federal harvest cap that's 28 percent higher on these species than last year.

The so-called Marine Sport Fish Advisory Committee chose the eight-fish limit after considering, but rejecting, a recommendation for a 10-fish limit for 2009.

Last year, the season began with a six-fish daily limit and dropped to five black and blue rockfish July 7 after early-season anglers gobbled much of the state's quota of 318 metric tons of these popular bottom fish.

The bag limit was relaxed back to six fish a day in September, and anglers limped through the remainder of 2008 without a closure on black rockfish angling.

Thanks to a new federal stock assessment for 2009, the adjusted quota for Oregon is 440 metric tons. That led to the committee's Jan. 8 recommendation to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"We could have pushed for 10 (fish a day) because the numbers are there for 10," says Wayne Butler, a Bandon charterboat operator who serves on the committee. "But we took a conservative step. We went half-way — get more fish and try to keep the stocks healthy."

The ODFW has not yet decided whether to support the committee's recommendation when it goes before the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission on April 17, says Brandon Ford, spokesman for the agency's Marine Program in Newport.

"I suspect, barring some other new biological information, that's what (Marine Program leaders) will recommend to our commission," Ford says.

However, Oregonians can expect a repeat of last year's move that pushed them closer to shore while fishing for black rockfish, the most common targeted and caught species of rockfish on the Oregon Coast.

Ocean managers again want to see anglers steer clear of deeper, further-offshore waters to reduce impacts on yelloweye rockfish, a species that is deemed to be over-fished.

The yelloweye quota is down 25 percent from 3.3 metric tons last year to 2.5 metric tons in 2009, Ford says.

"The good news is the black rockfish," Ford says. "The bad news for rebuilding yelloweye is that the cap's gone down."

Ford says he expects a repeat of last year's 40-fathom rule, in which sport anglers were forced to fish inside the 40-fathom curve while targeting black rockfish and lingcod between April 1 and Sept. 30.

That restriction later was changed to 20 fathoms and the bag limit was dropped from six black rockfish a day to five.

That mid-season adjustment could come again this year, Ford says.

"Right now, we don't know if there's going to be a problem," Ford says. "But if there is significant (yelloweye) by-catch as the summer heats up, we may do like we did last year and move the fishing even closer to shore.

"When they do that, almost the entire catch becomes black rockfish," Ford says.

Butler says the shift into near-shore waters to protect yelloweye didn't seem to harm catches.

"We still saw lingcod and a pretty good mix of fish," he says.

The two-lingcod daily limit was proposed to remain unchanged.

The commission, which sets ocean seasons based on federal and state guidelines, typically sets the limits in April. The limits will remain in place until April 2010, though the quotas are set based on calendar years.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.