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Habitat and Groundfish Ecology Research in the California Current

Our team performs stock assessments and studies demersal communities and habitat assemblages to ensure sustainable and effective management of marine ecosystems.

A program of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Fisheries Ecology Division.

The Habitat and Groundfish Ecology Team studies deep-water California demersal communities and habitat assemblages, the goal being to provide sound scientific information to ensure the sustainability of marine fisheries and the effective management of marine ecosystems. Our objectives:

  • Improving stock assessments, especially of overfished rockfish species in complex habitats
  • Characterizing fish and habitat associations to improve identification of essential fish habitat
  • Contributing to marine protected area design and monitoring and to ecosystem-based management
  • Understanding the significance of deep-sea coral habitats

We use a variety of survey tools and approaches to improve our assessments of demersal fishes, macro-invertebrates (including members of deep-water coral communities), and associated seafloor habitats off the entire California coast. Tools used include:

  • Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs)
  • Manned submersibles
  • Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs)
  • Scuba
  • Laser line scan
  • Towed cameras

Our Research

Groundfish Stock Assessments and Fishery Management Support

Stock assessment models integrate demographic information (age and length structure of a population) with fisheries catches and abundance indicators from surveys to estimate sustainable harvest levels for recreational and commercial fisheries. These models form the scientific basis for fishery management by NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC).

Our researchers have contributed significantly to stock assessment activities for West Coast groundfish fisheries, leading investigations and assessments for many species including cowcod, gopher/black and yellow rockfish, blue/deacon rockfish, and California scorpionfish.

Other efforts supporting these stock assessment models include:

  • Studying the reproductive ecology of target species
  • Developing age data using otoliths (ear stones)
  • Developing methods to improve catch estimation in mixed stock fisheries

We also contribute to the development of novel analytical methods to evaluate stock abundance and productivity, and support a number of advisory bodies including the PFMC Groundfish Management Team and the Recreational Fisheries Information Network (RecFIN) technical and statistical committees.

Deep-sea Coral Communities as Groundfish Habitat

Groundfish are an important component of West Coast fisheries, and understanding their habitat requirements is crucial to effective management. To that end, we investigate the degree to which deep-sea coral communities provide essential fish habitat for groundfish.

Our researchers lead a collaborative program conducting underwater surveys of corals, sponges, habitats, and fishes on rocky banks between 20 and 1200 meters deep. Analyzing this data going back almost 30 years lets us estimate the relative importance of deep-sea coral communities as habitat for a variety of commercially and ecologically significant groundfish species, and the spatial consistency of these associations.

Subtidal Recruitment of Juvenile Rockfish and Associated Ocean Conditions

Accurate forecasting of recruitment biomass to a fishery is needed to adequately manage stocks and set catch quotas. Since 1983, we have conducted surveys of juvenile rockfish recruiting to nearshore areas off the coast of northern California. A second sampling site was established in 2001 at the southern end of Monterey Bay to make comparisons of recruitment timing and magnitude between northern and central California. We estimate the number of juveniles that survive their pelagic phase, determine an annual recruitment strength, and assess growth rates for three common rockfish species (blue, yellowtail, and black).

From these long time series, we can better predict rockfish year classes that potentially contribute to the fishery in following years. From the survey data, we develop an index of rockfish recruitment, determine recruitment timing, and evaluate environmental and biological factors that influence recruitment on local and coast-wide scales. Our researchers coordinate with other subtidal survey efforts coastwide in an effort to standardize assessment methods and interpret results among all surveys.

Our Collaborations

Our research often is conducted in collaboration with other NOAA Fisheries Science Centers and National Marine Sanctuaries, along with academic partners from the University of California Santa Barbara, California Sea Grant, Moss Landing Marine Labs, Washington State University, and Oregon State University.

Our Team

Team Leader: E.J. Dick