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Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey in the California Current Marine Ecosystem

Our team monitors juvenile rockfish recruitment and ocean conditions in the waters off the California coast to provide annual data used in fisheries management.

Numerous small juvenile rockfish and one adult vermilion rockfish Young-of-the-year rockfish and adult vermilion rockfish. Credit: Robert Lee

A project of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Fisheries and Ecosystem Oceanography Team.

Long-term surveys are critical for understanding how marine ecosystems are changing over time and for assessing the status of fished species. Every spring since 1983, NOAA’s Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey has sampled the California Current Marine Ecosystem, allowing researchers to monitor the abundance of numerous species and track ecosystem responses to changing ocean conditions.

In spring of 2022, the survey completed its 40th year of sampling in the historical central California region, and 18 years of California coast-wide sampling. The survey, run by NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center, along with a companion survey off of Oregon and Washington led by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, conducts mid-water trawl sampling and also collects oceanographic data, marine mammal and seabird observations, fisheries acoustics data, and other types of opportunistic sampling for collaborative research studies. Over the past four decades, the survey has encountered over 230 different kinds of organisms.

Researchers sorting small fish from a mid-water trawl
Scientists sort rockfishes and other species from mid-water trawls aboard the NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker as part of the Rockfish Recruitment and Ecosystem Assessment Survey. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/John Field

The survey provides a vital data stream for fisheries management on the U.S. West Coast. Sampling is ideally suited to monitor the recruitment of juvenile rockfishes and other commercially important species. Rockfish are a diverse group of fish species that play varied and important roles in the marine ecosystem and are part of a large and valuable recreational and commercial fishery. Recruitment, also known as cohort strength or year-class strength, refers to the number of fish born in a given year that survive to become part of the population. By quantifying the recruitment of juvenile rockfishes, which is highly variable from year to year, the survey helps fishery managers better understand the oceanographic factors that influence successful recruitment, and anticipate the future population size of adult rockfishes.

Because the survey takes a varied and holistic approach to ecosystem sampling, it also provides important data on the overall condition and health of the California Current Ecosystem. Data from the survey has helped researchers understand how ecosystem shifts impact ocean biodiversity, seabird reproduction, unusual mortality events, and the rise of whale entanglements. As one of the longest continuous and most comprehensive marine surveys, this rich dataset enables continued research into how ecosystem changes (past, present, and future) impact the diversity of marine life and ecosystem services our coastal communities rely upon.

Learn more about the survey at our StoryMap page