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Rockfish limit may expand

BROOKINGS — Ocean charter Capt. Andy Martin knows exactly what new, hot lure will get inland anglers to traverse Highway 199 and hit the coast next year.

That lure is a larger bag limit for black rockfish, bumping the starting limit to six black and blue rockfish instead of five to go along with the South Coast’s piece d’ resistance — large, tasty lingcod.

“When you’re in Medford and thinking about coming over here, catching six rockfish and two lingcod sounds so much better,” says Martin, a veteran charterboat captain at Wild Rivers Fishing.

“It make it easier for people to justify that trip to the coast.”

And that justification is on track for validation today.

The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is poised to adopt the first six-rockfish daily limit to start a season in four years, giving offshore anglers a better chance to spread out the season and catch as close to the overall black rockfish quota as possible without a midseason shutdown.

Saying the black rockfish levels are enough to sustain a year-round limit of six fish, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended opening the season at six rockfish. That’s the most sought-after and caught bottomfish among a recreational angling public that sees close to 100,000 trips annually out of Oregon ports — with Brookings one of the top stops.

The past three seasons started with five-fish limits to ensure no midseason shutdown. But catch rates were low enough that ODFW increased the daily limit last July to seven black rockfish.

Anglers still left close to 40 metric tons of its 389.1 metric ton quota of black rockfish uncaught this year, according to ODFW.

Preseason estimates by biologists conclude that increasing the starting limit to six a day could spread the 2021 quota out throughout the year while tiptoeing that fine line of using up as much of the recreational anglers’ quota without ending the year-long season early if the quota is reached.

“Based on our modeling, we can start on a six-fish limit and be good throughout the year,” says Maggie Sommer, ODFW’s marine program manager in Newport. “We’re hoping for a stable year at six.”

Fishing interests used to a more conservative approach to bottomfish bag limits are happy to start stronger this year than they have for four years.

“It’s good to see that ODFW has crunched the numbers and increased out daily limit,” Martin says.

But the number crunching isn’t over.

The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council already has authorized the same catch quota for recreational anglers in Oregon next year, during a crucial year of surveys that could lead to larger quotas — and perhaps larger daily limits — in the future.

A coastwide survey of black rockfish planned for 2021 — it was set for 2020, but was yet another piece of collateral damage from COVID-19 restrictions — will become a cornerstone chunk of data for the PFMC when it does its next black rockfish stock assessment in 2023.

These assessments are used to hammer out recreational and commercial quotas for the three Western coastal states. Higher quotas create opportunities for higher daily bag limits and, therefore, happier anglers.

The last assessment was completed by the PFMC in 2015, and Sommer says some ODFW biologists believe the 2015 assessment underestimated black rockfish populations. The hope is that more research that includes acoustic and visual surveys will lead to a higher stock assessment, higher quotas and higher daily limits.

It all comes down to that stock assessment, so a strong survey could make for happier future anglers venturing from the Rogue Valley in search of a nice haul of bottomfish.

“That’s really the gold standard for fish abundance,” Sommer says. “That would really be a critical piece of information for the assessment.”

Finding early season daily limits on black rockfish that ensure a full 12-month season has always been a moving target for fish managers who have to anticipate angler effort, weather and other factors to mete out a full season.

That failed in 2017, when catch rates on black rockfish were so heavy early on that ODFW shut the recreational bottomfishing season down in September that year.

Agency biologists came back in 2018 with recommendations as low as three black rockfish per day, but the commission settled on a five-fish daily limit.

That limit held serve for all of 2019 and the first half of 2020.

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

Black rockfish school off an Oregon Coast marine preserve