New Genetic Info Cuts Protection for Puget Sound Rockfish

(CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service has removed a rockfish from the national List of Endangered Species and eliminated its habitat designation due to new genetic information. The action specifically affects the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin canary rockfish distinct population segment (DPS), and also makes technical changes to the boundaries of the Puget Sound DPSs of yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio rockfish that were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with the canary rockfish in 2010.

Critical habitats for the three rockfish were designated in 2014, after the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) conservation group threatened to sue the agency for not timely making the designations in accordance with the ESA mandate to do so at the time of listing, or within one year if it is not determinable at the time a species is listed.

The CBD considers the current action to be non-controversial. When asked why, given that the fish are still rare in Puget Sound, CBD’s Catherine Kilduff said, “Rockfish conservation is still very important because threats remain in Puget Sound – derelict crab pots litter the bottom and entrap rockfish, barotrauma [injury caused by rapid changes in air pressure] kills fish that are not released properly, etc. The delisting of this DPS hopefully won’t stop other efforts. The encouraging aspect is that delisting shows that the ESA-listing decisions are science-based and adaptive to new scientific information, in this case, genetic studies.”

The ESA defines a ‘species’ as an entire species, a subspecies or a DPS. A DPS is a distinct, or separate, population that is deemed to be significant to the species. The ESA also defines when a species or DPS can be removed from protection, either because the species has become extinct, because it has recovered, or because the original data for classification was in error, as in this case, the service said.

At the time the three rockfish were listed, there was genetic information available for coastal populations of rockfish, but not for inland Puget Sound populations. In 2013, the agency established a recovery team for the listed rockfish, and partnered with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), local fishing guides and Puget Sound anglers to collect samples from the different basins within the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin area and the outer coast. Samples were gathered during 74 fishing trips and combined with archived samples from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the service’s southwest fisheries science center, and the service’s northwest fisheries science center’s West Coast groundfish bottom trawl survey.

The new genetic samples showed the canary population inside the Sound was not genetically different from the coastal populations of canary rockfish, and therefore did not meet the definition of a DPS.

“The genetics indicate that there is connectivity among canary rockfish inside and outside Puget Sound. It’s important that the fisheries scientists have good information about fish stocks, including movement between geographic areas, so they can control fishing effort. Hopefully there will be more research immediately to ensure fishing outside Puget Sound isn’t negatively impacting the range of the fish, including into Puget Sound. Often fish ranges contract when abundance goes down, which means that if managers are only looking at a small area, the managers could think the population is stable when it’s contracting in range. That’s a common problem, so fisheries scientists should be aware of it in this case,” Kilduff said.

The coastal population of canary rockfish was declared “overfished” in 2000, the service said, and a rebuilding plan was put in place the following year. In 2015, the agency announced that the coastal stock had been rebuilt. Since the listing of the three rockfish species inside Puget Sound, the service and the WDFW changed fishery regulations by closing the set net, set line, and bottom trawl fisheries, and by prohibiting recreational anglers from fishing deeper than 120 feet. “These fisheries regulations are unlikely to change, and will benefit canary rockfish and nearly all rockfish species within the Puget Sound,” the agency said.

“The fishing in Puget Sound will continue to be managed. Removing the ESA status should not cause decline. Fisheries management, such as seasons, size limits, etc. occurs outside the Endangered Species Act authority and are based on fisheries scientists’ stock assessments,” Kilduff noted.

The service does not plan to implement a post-delisting monitoring plan, which would be expected if the fish were delisted due to recovery. Instead, the agency is relying on continuing research projects and surveys for all rockfish in Puget Sound, and the recovery plans and critical habitat for the other listed species of rockfish, which overlap the removed critical habitat designation for the canary rockfish.

“On August 16, 2016, we released a draft recovery plan for yelloweye rockfish and bocaccio of the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin. The draft recovery plan identifies approximately 45 research and recovery actions for listed rockfish, and though these actions are not specifically designed for canary rockfish, they would nonetheless benefit from plan implementation because of the similarity of habitats occupied for each species,” the agency said.

The delisting and critical habitat removal for Puget Sound canary rockfish is effective March 24.