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Ban on Taking Bocaccio Denied

U.S. says strict new rules should save the rockfish, sold as red snapper, from extinction.

November 15, 2002|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration rejected a petition Thursday to place a severely depleted rockfish on the list of endangered species, saying that new fishing restrictions should protect the fish from extinction "within the foreseeable future."

In its 23-page decision, the National Marine Fisheries Service blamed itself and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which it oversees, for failing to prevent the collapse of the bocaccio rockfish, whose numbers have plunged by 96.4% since 1969 from overfishing.

But the fisheries service said tough new rules -- including closing much of California's continental shelf to bottom fishing -- should save the fish commonly sold as Pacific red snapper from demise and promote its eventual recovery.

Yet, even under the new restrictions that will go into effect Jan. 1, the slow-growing, slow-to-reproduce rockfish is not expected to recover for 170 years, according to the fishery service.

"We will be monitoring the population closely to make sure we are right," said Rodney R. McInnis, acting regional director of the fisheries service. Bocaccio, he said, will remain a candidate for listing as an endangered species, should it be warranted in the future.

Convinced that current protections won't save the fish, environmental groups want the government to put the southern bocaccio, which are found from Baja California to Northern California, on the endangered species list.

"This fish may go the way of other species hunted to extinction," said Karen Garrison, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's oceans initiative. She expressed little confidence that the tighter federal fishing rules could adequately protect the bocaccio.

Mark Powell, fish conservation director for the Ocean Conservancy, said the latest array of closures is "too little, too late."

"Had they done this 10 years ago, it would have been OK," he said. "There are too many loopholes in rockfish regulations. They are allowing too many kinds of bottom trawling, for halibut and pink shrimp. Those fishermen are all going to catch bocaccio. The catch limit should be zero."

For decades, bocaccio was a staple of fish markets in California. It is one of several homely, bug-eyed, bottom-dwelling rockfish sold as red snapper or rock cod and is prized for its delicate white flesh.

Species Can Live to 40

The fish, which commonly live on rocky reefs at depths of 165 to 825 feet, often take five years or more before they reproduce. They can live to be more than 40 years old. Larger females produce far more eggs than smaller, younger fish.

Their numbers have plunged dramatically in recent decades due to commercial fishing pressures, and more recently because of recreational anglers, who have removed nearly all of the older fish.

Most of the remaining bocaccio off Southern California are 3 years old -- born in 1999, which was the last time a combination of cold water and rich plankton growth created ideal conditions for a successful bocaccio spawn, said Milton Love, a rockfish researcher at UC Santa Barbara. If the class of 1999 is fished out, he said, the species would have a very difficult time recovering.

Since July, neither commercial nor recreational fishermen have been allowed to target or keep bocaccio. The problem is that the bocaccio, like many other rockfish, usually die when pulled up from the ocean's crushing depths where they live. As they surface, an internal bladder expands, crushing organs and causing their eyes to bulge from their heads.

Commercial and recreational fishermen will be allowed to take 20 metric tons next year, but only as by-catch -- fish caught in the process of going after other species.

The plight of the bocaccio is the principal reason that federal officials earlier this year closed most of the rocky reefs on the continental shelf along the Southern and Central California coastline to bottom fishing.

Scientists generally agree that bocaccio and other rockfish can survive if pulled from depths of 60 feet or less. In a compromise with fishermen, federal officials banned bottom fishing for rockfish at depths of 120 feet to 900 feet.

Bob Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Assn. of California, disputed the need for the closures and other restrictions.

"The fishermen who are my members tell me that they haven't seen this many bocaccio in years," Fletcher said. Although federal officials don't have very good data on fish counts, he said, "they have enough data to know the fish aren't in the kind of trouble that needs the Endangered Species Act."

But the push by conservationists to list bocaccio may not be over. Drew Caputo, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has sued federal officials over rockfish regulations, said activists may take Thursday's decision to federal court.

Conservation groups, he said, have a tough time accepting the word of federal regulators, who have a history of bowing to pressure from fishermen.

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