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NOAA’s Draft Plan recommends actions to recover our endangered local rockfish
By Bob Friel
Rockfish are remarkable animals. The genus includes 28 of the Salish Sea’s 253 fish species, and their slow-growing, late-maturing, long-living, stay-at-home lifestyle is ideally adapted to our deep, rugged underwater habitats. With cryptic coloration and poisonous spines helping to keep them safe from predators, adult rockfish also have a low natural mortality rate, allowing them plenty of time (some species live more than 100 years!) to grow into large, prodigious breeders.
Unfortunately, rockfish ran into a snag when humans came along. They’re easy to catch, taste delicious, and those same life strategies that make them so successful under natural conditions also make them very vulnerable to overfishing. The biggest, fattest, oldest fish that serve as the best babymakers are also the lunkers so highly prized by fishermen. Since the mid-60s, our overall rockfish population has crashed by 70%.
Wildlife managers recognized the problem decades ago and began attempts to halt the decline. SeaDoc has long been heavily involved with rockfish issues and we continue to work closely with recreational fishermen, charter guides, and scientists from our local tribes, universities, NGOs, and all levels of government on both sides of the border in order to provide the best science possible to inform management decisions.
After looking at the science, thirteen rockfish were listed as Species of Concern by Washington State, which enacted commercial and recreation fishing bans. In British Columbia, the government set aside Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs). At the U.S. federal level, the big guns were pulled out in 2010 when three species of Salish Sea rockfish—yelloweye, Boccaccio, and canary—were listed under the Endangered Species Act. DNA research has since shown that our canary rockfish are part of the same population as the coastal canaries so they’ll likely be removed from ESA protection, but our yelloweye (Sebastes ruberrimus) and Boccaccio (Sebastes paucispinis) Distinct Population Segments remain listed, respectively, as threatened and endangered.
ESA listing requires NOAA Fisheries to come up with a plan to keep the affected species from going extinct. Drawing on studies (by SeaDoc and many others), they’ve come up with a Draft Rockfish Recovery Plan. The plan includes about 45 recommended actions, including doing a lot more research to better understand the rockfishes’ critical life stages (see our monthly update where divers are finding YOYs) as well as the threats they’re facing such as death by accidental bycatch and derelict fishing gear, water quality problems like persistent organic pollutants and low oxygen levels, and habitat issues including kelp restoration.
While all the stakeholders agree they want to see the return of healthy rockfish populations, if there’s one aspect of the plan sure to be a hot-button issue, it’s the call to start the separate public process for creating RCAs, MPAs (Marine Protected Areas), or some other form of marine reserves in the San Juan Islands and eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca where NOAA has identified a high risk of rockfish bycatch.
Marine reserves have been shown to help fish populations, especially with long-lived, resident species like rockfish, but some recreational fishermen believe the regulations already in effect do enough to protect the yelloweye and Boccaccio.
What do you think? NOAA wants to hear from you, and you can comment on their plan here until November 14. Along with taking comments, NOAA will be holding public meetings on the rockfish plan (more information and meeting schedule here). To arm yourself with all the info before you comment or attend a meeting, settle back, put your fins up and dive into the complete 157-page plan and its 83 pages of implementation appendices. It’s interesting reading, and chock full of facts about rockfish and their Salish Sea habitat.
Video by Janna Nichols
By Bob Friel
For a full week this September, the underwater rock walls and kelp forests of the San Juan Islands swarmed with clipboard-carrying scuba divers taking part in an annual study co-sponsored by SeaDoc and The Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF).
Among all the fish and invertebrates encountered during 100 survey dives, the drysuited citizen scientists and expert critter counters were blown away by how many YOYs they found. Young-of-the-Year, or YOY, is marine biology speak for baby fish, and what the dive teams saw weren’t just any old fingerlings, but juvenile yellowtail and black rockfish.
“I’ve never seen so many YOY rockfish in the San Juans,” says Janna Nichols, REEF Outreach Coordinator and veteran of 1,300 Salish Sea dives. Last year, surveyors saw a few rockfish fry on about one of every eight dives. This year they seemed to be everywhere and, reports Nichols, “There were hundreds of them.”
Photos by Janna Nichols
Rockfish baby booms, called “jackpot recruitment events,” happen sporadically and likely only when water temperature, climate, predator abundance, and other conditions are just right. Researchers haven’t yet been able to correlate jackpot events to subsequent increases in adult fish populations, but with our Salish Sea rockfish populations on the ropes from overfishing, the more babies they pump out the better.
Rockfish grow so slow that this year’s yellowtail jackpot juvies will need to dodge predators and derelict fishing gear for at least the next five years (six to eight years for black rockfish) before they’ll mature and get big enough to breed. However, with new fishing regulations in place to protect them, this current class of recruits should have a better chance at long lives than previous generations. “It will be interesting to see over the next couple of years of surveying if these little guys survive,” says Nichols.
Photos by Ed Gullekson
Aside from the annual intensive San Juan Islands monitoring study, SeaDoc collects data year-round on the fish and invertebrates we find on our Salish Sea underwater sites. We remain very active in rockfish conservation, and we’ll continue to document their abundance levels and, hopefully, their recovery.
If you’re a diver or snorkeler, you can help out by telling us about the rockfish you see (what kinds, where, and how many). Or better yet, join REEF (www.reef.org), the fish-watcher’s version of the Audubon Society. It’s free and you can start doing survey dives right away. Free web-based ID classes are available too – it’s a great way to hone your ID skills, and together with REEF’s 50,000 citizen scientists you’ll be helping to track the health of our marine ecosystems. Plus, diving here in the beautiful waters of the Salish Sea, it’s just a matter of time before you’ll hit the jackpot.
Photo of Western grebe with implanted satellite transmitter, by Joe Gaydos
By Bob Friel
Of all the recent changes in the Salish Sea ecosystem, one of the most visible is the virtual disappearance of the Western grebe. Our inland sea was once the preferred winter habitat for 70% of the entire population of this stately black-and-white waterbird with its swanlike neck and devilish red eyes. Today, though, after summering on lakes and wetlands where they perform one of the earth’s most spectacular mating rituals and raise their chicks on floating nests, only about 4% of Western grebes return to spend the cooler months in Salish Sea waters.
Over the last 20 years, the population size of grebes has fallen across their range, with some of the culprits for this being oil spills in California’s marine waters where a large population of grebes spends the winter, as well as pollution and other human impacts on the grebes’ freshwater breeding grounds. However, these factors don’t fully explain the dramatic 90% drop in the Salish Sea winter population.
A prior groundbreaking SeaDoc seabird study showed that the Salish Sea’s specialized hunters—sushi lovers like loons, scoters, and grebes—were all being hit hard by declines in high-quality forage fish like herring. That’s another major piece of information, but still doesn’t complete the puzzle. For that we’ll need to ask the grebes themselves by tracking them so precisely that they tell us what’s going on with the changes in their populations and migratory patterns.
Scientists today have all kinds of cool tech tools to help track wildlife. But while suction-cupping a GPS transmitter to a blue whale has no effect on the 200-ton beast, it’s much more taxing to strap any external device on a four-pound waterbird that not only has to retain the aerodynamics to fly, but also the hydrodynamics and waterproofing needed to dive, swim, and catch fish.
Enter the bionic bird.
The idea of implanting a small telemetry device inside a bird’s body cavity is not new. It had even been tried before with grebes. Unfortunately, that experiment had disastrous consequences for every one of the test subjects. Paging SeaDoc to the operating room, stat!
Across two recent studies, SeaDoc veterinarians, in collaboration with other wildlife veterinarians from the UC Davis Oiled Wildlife Care Network and USGS, as well as biologists from Washington and California’s Departments of Fish and Wildlife, first made sure the improved surgery worked in captivity. (Read the study). They then used the revolutionized surgical methods on grebes captured in the San Francisco Bay.
As a proof of concept it was a great success, with an 89% survival rate for the first 25 days after release. (Read the most recent study). Two grebes continued broadcasting data for more than 14 months until their transmitter batteries died. We tracked one of those birds across 2,144 kilometers as it summered in Oregon before returning to the Bay Area—the first roundtrip migration of a Western grebe ever recorded in real time!
While we have no plans to create flocks of bionic birds, our studies achieved a big leap forward in wildlife surgical techniques and, with continued improvement, should assist in providing enough future tracking data to inform decisions about habitat protection and pollution mitigation that we hope will help recover our Western grebe populations.
By Bob Friel
All of the Salish Sea’s marine mammals—from sea otters to orcas, pinnipeds to porpoises and all the great whales—are federally protected. In collaboration with The Whale Museum, SeaDoc makes crucial contributions to conserving these animals by tracking and diagnosing their diseases, and by responding when they turn up stranded on the beach.
This year, the Whale Museum/SeaDoc partnership was among only three entities in Washington State awarded federal funding under the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program. These funds will allow us to continue to respond to marine mammal strandings and to do the research necessary to establish what causes them to end up stranded in the first place.
In the past, SeaDoc, the Whale Museum, and a whole cadre of volunteers have worked to unravel mysteries associated with the impact of Navy sonar on whales, to determine whether zoonotic diseases like brucellosis that effect seals also pose a risk to humans, and to gather other data critical to marine mammal conservation.
Teamwork in research and wildlife rescue activities increases our effectiveness, while success at raising public funds to supplement private support allows SeaDoc to expand our mission to restore the Salish Sea. And it’s all good news for marine mammals!
Dear SeaDoc Supporter,
Science helps increase our understanding of the Salish Sea and improves our ability to set policy and manage the system. You’re probably familiar with SeaDoc’s role funding and conducting research and translating those findings. Thanks to your support, we also try to review the use of science for making decisions. You’ll read below that we recently commented on the National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal to remove the Canary Rockfish from the list of US threatened species. In this update, you can see what we thought, and also see how to submit your own comments.
Thank you for your support,
By Bob Friel and Joe Gaydos
The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed to delist the Puget Sound / Georgia Basin Canary Rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) from the list of threatened species under the US Endangered Species Act. The delisting isn’t based on an increase in the Rockfish population, but on the results of recent genetic findings that show our local canaries are genetically the same as those living on the Washington coast and that they’re not, as previously thought, a Distinct Population Segment (DPS). Incidentally, Canary Rockfish on the Pacific Coast were considered overfished in 2000 and thanks to a rebuilding plan, were determined to be “rebuilt” in 2015.
Similar testing showed that Yelloweye Rockfish (S. ruberrimus) within the Salish Sea are different from those on the coast and thus form a DPS. Not enough Boccacio (S. paucispinis) could be sampled to determine if it is a DPS. Since both Yelloweye and Boccaccio Rockfish remain protected under the ESA, delisting canaries will have no effect on the stringent fishing regulations put in place to try and recover all our local Rockfish species.
After reviewing the supplementary scientific information provided by NOAA, SeaDoc submitted a formal comment in support of this decision (acknowledging that the science supports the decisions being made). Comments are due Sept. 6, 2016. Click here to read the details of the science behind this proposed rule change and/or to submit a formal comment.
By Bob Friel
For the Salish Sea, 2016 has been the Summer of the Humpback. Normally we see a small handful of humpback whales hang around all season, with others passing through in spring and fall, but this year more than 70 of the huge, pickle-faced cetaceans spent the entire summer feeding and frolicking in local waters.
While the number of big whales is a boon for whale watchers because our endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales have been forced to roam far and wide in search of fewer and fewer salmon, it’s also drawn attention to how we, as a region, are woefully unprepared to handle some of the issues that accompany burgeoning populations of large whales.
California has seen a similar increase in humpbacks showing up inshore, which is where the whales come into contact with fishing gear. Entangled as they swim through lobster lines or when curious calves get caught up playing with crab floats, the whales are liable to get wrapped in super strong synthetic lines that hinder their swimming, anchor them to the bottom, or even slice their tails off.
On the East Coast, half the humpback population shows scars from run-ins with manmade obstacles. And since the Salish Sea’s summertime whale influx coincides with the laying of gillnets and many miles of line connected to crab and shrimp pots, it’s likely only a matter of time before we wind up with a snared humpback or, even worse, a tangled resident orca.
In order to begin assembling a team prepared to respond to large whales in trouble, SeaDoc and Whale Museum staff joined local Marine Mammal Stranding Network volunteers and officials from NOAA for a full day of training on how to document and evaluate these dangerous situations. The group then ran on-water scenarios using a Washington Fish & Wildlife boat as stand-in for a 40-ton entangled humpback. Trainees practiced throwing special grappling hooks to snare trailing lines and attached telemetry buoys to track the “whale” by satellite and VHF.
This was just the first step in getting ready for problems we hope we never see but must be prepared for. For now, sighting and documenting issues is the priority, and it’s something everyone can be involved in. So while you’re enjoying watching our local whales, keep an eye out for any that appear entangled or seem in distress. If you spot something, keep your required distance (100 yards for humpbacks; 200 yards for resident orcas) but get photos or video, and call the hotline at: 877-SOS-WHALe
By Bob Friel
Using a high-definition “Deep Blue” camera and special face masks, SeaDoc divers can feed live video and narration to topside audiences who get to enjoy all the underwater action while staying warm and dry.
SeaDoc has performed these extremely popular “virtual dives” for several years using borrowed video gear, but thanks to a generous donation from the Benedict Family Foundation, we now have our own upgraded camera equipment that we’ve modified to better showcase and record marine creatures big and small. The next step is to acquire the capability to stream our virtual dives over the internet to reach even larger audiences for education, research, and fundraising opportunities.
If you think you have the right setting—waterfront home, marina, or large boat—and an audience that wants to support SeaDoc’s work and see the wonders beneath the Salish Sea without getting wet, ask us about organizing a virtual dive.
Underwater video by Bob Friel
By Bob Friel
Were they poisoned by harmful algae? Did they get outcompeted by an increasing humpback whale population? Or is a warming ocean shifting their food supply? Aided by citizen scientists on both sides of the border, researchers are trying to figure out why Rhinoceros Auklets—the unicorns of the seabird world—are washing up dead in unusually large numbers this year around their most important Salish Sea breeding colony.
There’s been concern in recent years about food supplies for diving birds like auklets and other puffins. Observations from Protection Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca show that breeding success of the 72,000 Rhinos nesting there was about half normal levels. And trained beach surveyors from the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) discovered as many as 100 times the number of dead Rhinos they’d expect to find in an average July. So what’s going on?
Necropsies fingered both starvation and pneumonia, but there’s not enough data to know which came first: sickness or lack of food. Stay tuned for the results.
Interested in being a part of citizen science seabird survey work? Become a COASST volunteer. SeaDoc feels so strongly about the work of COASST we helped fund their expansion into the San Juan Islands in 2001. Sign up at: https://depts.washington.edu/coasst/