Over the next few years, Nuu-chah-nulth economic and food, social and ceremonial (FSC) fisheries, as well as the commercial and recreational fishing sector, will be benefiting from the rebuilding of two rockfish species found in BC: Outside Yelloweye (Yelloweye along the west coast of Vancouver Island, central and north coasts of BC) and Bocaccio Rockfish.

“We have two rockfish species that have been constraining Nuu-chah-nulth economic and FSC fisheries due to their low abundance that are now, or will soon be, considered fairly healthy, but for different reasons,” said Jim Lane, Southern Region Biologist for Uu-a-thluk.

Low abundance of BC Outside Yelloweye in particular has been inhibiting hook and line fisheries such as Halibut, Sablefish and Lingcod, as Yelloweye are bycatch in these fisheries and have been affecting fishers’ ability to harvest their full quota.

In a positive turn of events, BC Outside Yelloweye and Bocaccio stocks are now rebuilding, but not for the same reasons.

In the case of Outside Yelloweye, stocks are no longer in the Critical Zone thanks to the management measures that were part of an overall rebuilding plan. For Bocaccio, a massive recruitment event (the number of new fish that enter a population in a given year) is responsible for the rebounding of stock health.

The decline of the BC Outside Yelloweye Rockfish population dates back to the 1990s, when overfishing by the commercial and recreational sectors took its toll on the population. In response to reduced abundance, DFO (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) implemented a Rockfish Conservation Strategy aimed at halting inshore rockfish population declines, and to allow an opportunity for them to rebuild.

The strategy consisted of four conservation measures:

  • Account for all catch.
  • Decrease fishing mortality.
  • Establish areas closed to all fishing.
  • Improve stock assessment and monitoring.

As part of the plan, new stock monitoring surveys were in initiated in 2003 and 2006, and 164 Rockfish Conservation Areas were established between 2002 and 2007. In 2006, 100 per cent catch monitoring and licence integration were implemented in groundfish fisheries.

Despite these measures, Yelloweye Rockfish stocks continued to decline and were classified as being in the Critical Zone by DFO in 2017. That same year, further cuts to Yelloweye Total Allowable Catch (TAC) were implemented. Two years later, a 2019 reassessment of Outside Yelloweye indicated the populations are now out of the Critical Zone.

As a result, TACs are anticipated to increase in 2020.

BC Bocaccio Rockfish, on the other hand, are still in the Critical Zone despite similar COSEWIC designations, TAC reductions and management measures. In 2013, Bocaccio was reassessed by COSEWIC (the population was originally assessed in 2002), and listed as Endangered, meaning it faced imminent extirpation or elimination.

However, in a surprising turn of events, scientific data is indicating a strong recruitment of juvenile Bocaccio Rockfish in 2016, which will change the population’s status.

“In 2016, there was this massive recruitment event of Bocaccio which means there is a large number of juveniles that are going to become adults in the next two or three years and essentially push the stock out of the Critical Zone and in to the Healthy Zone,” said Lane.

The good news around the rebuilding of BC Yelloweye and Bocaccio Rockfish populations will have positive ripple effects on Nuu-chah-nulth Nations in multiple ways.

Nations with commercial fishing licences should experience an easing of fishing restrictions aimed at Yelloweye protections as TAC for Outside Yelloweye increases for the 2020 fishing season.

Nuu-chah-nulth community members who prefer harvesting Bocaccio and Yelloweye as part of their FSC catch will find it easier to catch the species due to the increased abundance.

T’aaq-wiihak’s allocation of the overall rockfish TAC will also see an increase, which should reduce restrictions on fishers, however, T’aaq-wiihak  biologist Candace Picco recommends a precautionary approach to the management of local rockfish populations.

“I would still remain vigilant about rockfish conservation; these are long-lived species that take several decades to rebuild,” said Picco.