Protecting Washington's rockfish

Washington is home to many species of rockfish. Some populations are healthy, but others are struggling and are listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. In Puget Sound, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has implemented recreational depth and area restrictions, and closed commercial fisheries that target rockfish or have a high potential to encounter the fish as bycatch. Other commercial fisheries off the Washington coast that tend to take rockfish as bycatch have also been limited in an effort to reduce rockfish mortality. An operable descending device is required to be onboard, and rigged for immediate use, all recreational vessels targeting bottomfish and halibut in all Washington marine areas.   

But more can be done to protect vulnerable rockfish species. Anglers, especially, can help conserve rockfish populations by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Avoid rockfish habitat: When targeting non-rockfish species, avoid areas that are known to attract rockfish, such as pinnacles, boulders, and other structurally complex habitats. If a rockfish has been unintentionally caught in an area you are fishing, move to a different area. The best protection is always avoidance.
  • Limit rockfish releases: When legally harvesting rockfish as part of your total allowable bottomfish take, target non-rockfish species first. This will enable you to retain any legally harvested rockfish caught incidentally while targeting other species, and will reduce the number of rockfish released.
  • Use release-friendly tackle: When fishing with bait, use a single circle hook. Circle hooks are less likely to cause injury by being deeply swallowed, increasing the chances of survival for released fish.

WDFW also produced a brochure (PDF) illustrating best practices for improving the survival of released rockfish.

Releasing rockfish

In addition to following the above guidelines, rockfish conservation can be improved by employing a decompression or descending device. Barotrauma is physical damage to body tissues caused by changes in air pressure and affects rockfish caught in deep water and brought to the surface. Rapid ascent through the water column expands the gases in the swim bladder. Fish that are caught then released with inflated swim bladders cannot descend through the water column and typically float around until they die or are consumed by predators or scavengers.

Survival from injuries caused by barotrauma can be greatly improved by returning rockfish to the depth of capture before release. Rockfish caught in less than 60 feet of water are quite often able to submerge on their own. However, regardless of the depth of capture, if the fish appears to be unable to descend or exhibits obvious outward signs of barotrauma (e.g., stomach is distended from mouth, bulging eyes), here are some tips to increase survival:

  • Avoid rough handling: Avoid dropping the fish, and touch it as little as possible while also using a wet towel or wet hands. This will help to reduce removal of the fish’s protective slime coat.
  • Do not vent: Puncturing the fish’s stomach, swim bladder or other bulging organs is NOT recommended and can cause serious injury or introduce infection. This practice can lead to death.
  • Limit surface time: Rockfish survival is known to be related to time spent on the surface and survival increases as surface time decreases. With practice, rockfish can be released very rapidly, often in less than two minutes after reaching the surface.
  • Use a descending device: Return the fish to the depth of capture or at least 60 feet, to ensure complete recompression.

Descending devices

A variety of descending devices, or recompression tools, are commercially available. Anglers can also make their own descending devices out of a simple weighted hook or a weighted, inverted milk crate. The goal of all such devices, whether they are “lip clippers,” weighted hooks, or “drop baskets” is to quickly and safely return the fish to capture depth, thus minimizing both short-term and long-term damage to tissues and organs.

Here are some tips:

  • The device should weigh at least 3 pounds or be of sufficient weight to quickly submerge a large rockfish.
  • Have your descending device assembled and ready to use before you start fishing. Fish returned to depth within two minutes are known to have a much better chance of survival. The chance of survival for some species is known to decrease by half for every 10 minutes the fish is out of the water.
  • Consider dedicating an old rod and reel or downrigger with a descending device attached to minimize time out of the water.

Release technique using a weighted hook:

  1. After bringing the fish to the surface and unhooking it, hook the weighted barbless hook downward through soft tissue on the lower jaw.
  2. While keeping tension on the line and holding the weighted hook, lower the fish over the side of the boat and swing the fish slightly to one side, then let go of the weighted hook. Let line out as the weight pulls the fish back to the bottom.
  3. Once back at depth, release the fish with a sharp jerk on the line.
  4. If the fish does not remain submerged after being released from the descending device, attempt to descend the fish again.

If you are unable to dedicate an old rod to use for releasing rockfish note that, with a little creative rigging, it is possible to place a weighted hook 6-8 feet above your terminal tackle. This allows you to release a captured rockfish following the instructions above, then continue fishing without having to retrieve your gear.

Release techniques using a weighted inverted milk crate:

  1. After bringing the fish to the surface and unhooking it, place the fish at the surface of the water and capture it under a weighted milk crate attached to a line.
  2. With the weight suspended from the bottom (open side) of the crate, rapidly lower the fish to the desired depth.
  3. After reaching the desired depth, rapidly retrieve the milk crate.
  4. If the fish does not remain submerged after being released from the descending device, attempt to descend the fish again.

Additional information: