Bottomfishers move toward shore to avoid full shutdown

Recreational bottomfishers will be herded into shallow waters beginning Friday to steer them clear of an overfished rockfish species and potentially avoid the first mid-season shutdown of the recreational bottomfish fleet in a dozen years.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will relegate ocean angling to water 120 feet deep or less to keep fishermen from hooking too many yelloweye rockfish, an overfished, deep-water species that anglers cannot keep.

A heavy incidental catch of yelloweyes so far this year by anglers targeting other bottomfish species, plus a lull in the use of fish-saving, deep-water release gear, has caused the recreational fleet to use up two-thirds of its allowable annual bycatch mortality, according to ODFW.

Bottomfishers this year already were pulled inside the 30-fathom line, or 180 feet of water, to avoid yelloweyes. But computer-modeling shows that not moving inside the 20-fathom line and away from main yelloweye waters would exhaust the bycatch quota by the end of August, triggering a full bottomfishing shutdown to protect the remaining yelloweyes, says Maggie Sommer, ODFW's marine fisheries program manager.

"We really don't want to see a fishing closure before Labor Day," Sommer says. "That's really what we're trying to avoid."

The last time a blanket shutdown of ocean bottomfishing occurred was Sept. 3, 2004, when anglers filled that year's black rockfish quota on the eve of the Labor Day weekend, which is one of the busiest on the ocean.

"Different issue but the same impact," Sommer says.

The last time sport anglers flirted with a shutdown came in 2011, when ODFW last invoked the 20-fathom restriction to protect yelloweyes. That change, along with consistent use of special release devices to avoid barotrauma deaths in yelloweyes as they were slowly released into deep waters, helped keep the season open the rest of that year, Sommer says.

But use of these so-called "descending devices" has dropped from 80 percent in recent years to 60 percent this year, Sommer says.

Yelloweyes pulled from deep water often exhibit signs of barotrauma, such as bloated swim bladders in their abdomen and bulging eyes. Those released with barotrauma cannot descend to their deep-water environs, so they need help in returning to depths where pressure will remove their symptoms.

Descending devices, which range from as little as $3 to as much as $50, allow anglers to use their rods, reels and weights to slowly return the fish to deep water for a successful release.

More use of these devices by anglers would slow the rate at which Oregon's recreational fleet gobbles up the yelloweye "quota" of 2.8 metric tons. Through June, an estimated 1.85 metric tons of yelloweyes had died after release, Sommer says.

Both yelloweye numbers and catch-and-release mortality on them is much lower inside the 20-fathom line, according to ODFW.

The change does not effect tuna fishing or recreational salmon fishing. However, anglers doing combination trips must do their rockfish jigging at the end of their trips if they plan on salmon fishing in water deeper than 120 feet. That's because it will be illegal to have bottomfish on board past the 20-fathom line beginning Friday.

The slow-growing yelloweyes along the West Coast were declared an overfished species in 2002 by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Since then, they have been managed under a plan to rebuild the stock while reducing the incidental take of these fish by sport and commercial fleets targeting other species.

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

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