Cooperative and Citizen Science on Puget Sound Rockfish
Working with the recreational fishing and SCUBA diving communities to collect data and measure recovery of endangered and threatened rockfish species in Puget Sound.
Cooperative Research With the Recreational Fishing Community
The listing of three rockfish species (Sebastes spp.) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2010 motivated the development of a cooperative research program between government agencies and the local recreational fishing and SCUBA diving communities of Puget Sound, WA.
This program examines rockfish life history characteristics, movement behavior, young-of-year recruitment, and the population responses to fishing in Puget Sound. The recreational fishing community's involvement provided valuable information about the three ESA-listed rockfish populations in Puget Sound (Fig. 1). They helped us determine if these species were genetically discrete from populations outside Puget Sound. There was considerable uncertainty about this question during the original ESA listing process due to limited data on these three species in Puget Sound.
We used the fishing community's knowledge and expert angling skills to locate these rare species and non-lethally collect tissue samples for genetic analyses. Without this collaboration (Andrews et al. 2019), sampling and collecting sufficient samples would have taken much longer and likely would have been constrained to fewer locations, particularly for yelloweye rockfish (Fig. 2).
These cooperative efforts showed that yelloweye rockfish in Puget Sound were genetically different from outer coast individuals. Still, the northern boundary of the population was different than previously assumed (Fig. 3). In contrast, we found canary rockfish was genetically similar across Puget Sound and the outer coast.
Federal managers used these results to expand the ESA-listed boundaries of yelloweye rockfish and delist canary rockfish – the first delisting of a marine fish species from the ESA. The knowledge and angling expertise of the Puget Sound recreational fishing community was directly responsible for the successful collection of data to test hypotheses that resulted in very specific management decisions.
Benefits of Fishing Together
One of the benefits of working on a small boat is listening to other people on board and being heard by those same individuals. Anglers and scientists alike love to tell stories, and that was no different during the collaborative fishing trips between NOAA biologists and Puget Sound's recreational fishing community. In addition to the local knowledge that the fishing community brought to our research, we shared stories about what fish and fishing mean to each other.
We collaborated on research fishing projects with nine captains from the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. Most of the captains in Puget Sound had shifted to chartering fishing trips for salmon almost exclusively. This shift in effort was due to reduced rockfish levels in Puget Sound (Fig. 4) and the subsequent regulations limiting the number and species of rockfish they could target (Williams et al. 2010).
However, the anglers told us the chance to fish for rockfish was a "challenge" and a joy to "put the puzzle together, looking for certain structure and depths, a certain period in the tide." Another captain explained that he liked to fish for rockfish because "they taste really good. I'd take a rockfish over salmon any day of the week."
We asked local fishing clubs to advertise these research trips. We looked for volunteer anglers with bottom-fish fishing experience (Fig. 5). Many of the angler volunteers remember fishing for rockfish back in their youth. For example, one angler directed us to "a hole that lines up with a big rock on the shore" that he used to fish 30 years ago as a teenager. Not surprisingly, on one of the first drops of the day, we caught one of only three bocaccio that we caught during the entire research effort (Fig. 6).
While on the water together, we also spent time discussing these species' conservation and recovery. We found anglers better understood the recovery challenges faced by these long-lived, slow-to-mature species when they hear (and see) that the fish they just caught (see the size of fish in Fig. 5) has a 50% chance of being mature at the age of 19 (Fig. 7).
Another example of the recreational fishing community's conservation efforts involves the bycatch of rockfish in other popular fisheries, such as lingcod or halibut. Rockfish have a gas-filled swim bladder that they use to control their buoyancy in the water column. When an angler reels up a rockfish from depth, the swim bladder's gas expands 'like a balloon' and causes their internal organs to be pushed around, damaged, and sometimes extruded from the fish's mouth (Fig. 8).
These maladies are known as barotrauma and are similar to the 'bends' that a SCUBA diver might experience when they rise to the surface too quickly. When fish experiencing barotrauma are released back to the water, many cannot overcome the extra buoyancy. They cannot swim back down to the bottom under their own power and end up dying.
During our research fishing trips, we used a descending device to return rockfish to their original depth. Doing so compresses their internal gases enough, enabling them to swim back to the bottom under their own power.
The device we used clamps onto the fish's lower lip and is attached to a fishing pole or downrigger with a heavy weight. The fish is lowered to the depth of capture. The device 'pops' open and releases the fish (Fig. 9). These devices were a hit with our volunteer anglers and captains. There are several versions of descending devices. Some local fishing clubs have received NOAA grants to purchase and distribute them at boat docks and meetings.
These one-on-one interactions with stakeholders have provided a two-way path of information among state and federal agencies. They have allowed for candid discussions about the successful management and conservation of these ESA-listed species in the Puget Sound region.