Rockfish Need Marine Protected Areas

There are over 100 species of rockfish in the world, and the waters of B.C. host nearly 40 of these solitary and territorial “scorpionfishes.” But these important predators are not reaching their full potential in terms of age and size.

Rockfish in the coastal waters of British Columbia are characterized by their amazing variety of shapes, sizes and colours. From black to green and even crimson and vibrant orange, rockfish camo resembles the seafloor and rock faces where they live, usually settling in one place for most of their lives. With over 100 species of rockfish in the world, BC’s waters host nearly 40  separate species. Solitary and territorial, these spiky fish are part of the “scorpionfish” family.

Over the past several decades, during which time commercial and sport fisheries have rapidly expanded on the central coast, First Nations fishers noticed a decline in abundance and size of rockfish at their traditional fishing sites. The Yelloweye rockfish (also known as red snapper) is an important part of the traditional diet, and listed as a species of concern. The right of Indigenous peoples to access fisheries for food, social, and ceremonial purposes is enshrined in Canada’s constitution; when commercial and recreational fisheries deplete food fisheries, it affects the health and cultural survival of First Nations people.

Several Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) were established in the early 2000s to restrict commercial and recreational rockfish fishing, and resulted in a reduction in fishing-related mortality overall, however older and larger rockfish are still scarce. These observations led to a collaborative research project carried out by the Central Coast Indigenous Resource Alliance (CCIRA) with Hakai Institute. Numerous community members provided their local and traditional ecological knowledge and assisted with field work. In total 282 sites that First Nations used or still use for rockfish and lingcod food gathering were sampled; some inside and some outside of RCAs.

CCIRA fisheries and science coordinators Madeleine McGreer and Alejandro Frid recently published the results, which show declines in the size and age of rockfish in the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv Nation territories on the central coast.

Normally, Yelloweye rockfish can live up to 120 yrs and Quillback rockfish up to 90 yrs, not reaching sexual maturity until their late teens or early 20s. The bigger and older female rockfish get, the more young they produce. Their slow growth rate and habit of producing more young later on in life together make rockfish populations particularly susceptible to fishing pressure. Fisheries target the larger fish, so populations are becoming increasingly younger with smaller individuals.  Rockfish populations are also suffering from warmer water and lower oxygen levels due to climate change.

The study showed that while the recovery of rockfish populations is slow and uneven, Yelloweye were on average 22% larger within RCAs than outside of them. Current RCA boundaries may not include the right habitat for other species that are not showing signs of recovery within them, or enforcement of fishing restrictions may be lacking. Alejandro’s recommendations in the recent CCIRA study include expanding protected areas for rockfish using the expertise of central coast Nations to identify rockfish habitats, and monitoring existing Rockfish Conservation Areas more closely for compliance.

Here are some tips for what you can do to help (originally published in the Georgia Strait):

  • Respect Rockfish Conservation Areas, and support efforts to establish long-term marine protected areas, particularly around rocky reefs that are prime habitat for rockfish.
  • Respect voluntary no-take zones (such as those in San Juan County and the pilot marine protected area at Gabriola Pass), and refrain from fishing there.
  • When you fish, don’t practice catch-and-release with rockfish – it doesn’t work. When a rockfish is brought to the surface, the gases inside its swim bladder expand and the bladder balloons, bursting and sometimes being expelled through the mouth. Even when the fish appears unharmed and swims away, its swim bladder has been damaged and an infection will set in, killing it within a few weeks.


Rockfish size and age: The crossroads of spatial protection, central place fisheries and indigenous rights

Rockfish Profile: Georgia Strait

Rockfish Conservation Areas – a link to DFO’s maps of RCAs by region and RCA booklet