The Sex Life of Rockfish

Editor’s Note: This story has a happy ending. It appears the rockfish population has recovered in the past 20 years.

by Peter Huhtala

Yelloweye rockfish
courtesy: NOAA Fisheries


“I could feel the electricity in the water around me,” reflects diver Eric Eisenhardt. “Fish were darting in and out of my view, bumping each other and flashing off in different directions.” Eric was diving in Puget Sound, observing rockfish as part of his graduate program at the University of Washington. He found himself in the midst of a large number of copper rockfish, in a relatively shallow area of the sound.

Eric swam among the fish, curious about the unusual behavior he observed. The situation soon became clear, as he recalls, “Right in front of my face mask two coppers rubbed against each other. One rolled on its side and they shimmied and shook.” Eric joined the ranks of the rare few who have beheld rockfish mating.

Copper rockfish, sometimes called Chucklehead, are one of about 71 species of rockfish that live in the waters of the West Coast. The coppers are among several species that venture near shore, at least during spawning, as Eric observed. They will also range to waters as deep as 600 feet.

Usually adult coppers prefer solitary lives near the bottom, exploring rocky pinnacles, caves and shipwrecks. They can live to 55 years, or more. But what’s with this mating frenzy?

Rockfish Don’t Lay Eggs
The only real fish-mating I’ve had the pleasure to view is that of salmon. This phenomena never ceases to thrill me. Oblivious to human voyeurs, the spawning female tools a crater among the gravel. She nestles with her chosen male and he bumps and strokes her. The female expels her roe and the male ejects his milt upon the eggs. She spreads some gravel over the nest and they find a spot to do it again. Pretty sexy alright, but those rockfish seem to have added a new dimension.

Rockfish don’t lay eggs. They give live birth. Hence the display of an act of internal fertilization. In fact these amazing rockfish are viviparous – females not only carry the eggs until they hatch, they may also nourish their larvae in the ovary. Unlike the salmon, which die soon after spawning, rockfish can live to reproduce year after year. In fact many female rockfish become more fecund with age.

Once they leave their mother, the tiny rockfish larvae drift in the currents of the sea. They may find themselves many miles out into the ocean. Most will not survive; after a few months, the ones that do will settle into kelp forests, rocky reefs or other preferred haunts of their species. Slowly they grow to adulthood. Some species are not considered mature until they are more than 10 years old.

Rockfish are the elders of the West Coast fish society. Recently a rougheye rockfish was aged at 205 years old! She had numerous nautical adventures by the time Meriwether Lewis and William Clark hunkered down for a winter at Fort Clatsop. She was munching krill long before Thomas Jefferson became the first president to be inaugurated in Washington, DC.

Elders of West Coast
She dodged the hooks of the Tlingit, the jaws of the orca and the trawl nets of the new Americans for over 20 decades. She carried tens of millions of offspring in her time. Scientists examined her otoliths, the bones of her inner ears, to determine her age. Under a microscope, the rings of the otoliths reveal much about the life of a fish, but they can only hint of the hidden stories of two centuries.

From shallow salt water near the coast to depths of over 3,000 feet on the continental slope roam the striking and unusual rockfish. All share the genus of Sebastes, the perfect Greek word for these fish, meaning magnificent. Some are fat and spiny, others long and round; some grow to but a few inches, others to nearly four feet. They come in colors, many so brilliant they are named for a predominant hue: canary, vermilion, rosy, black and yellow, blue, red-banded, calico and green-blotched (that are mostly pink).

Many rockfish are loners, mingling close over the reefs with other individuals of many species. Some, like widow rockfish and bocaccio, gather in schools and journey far above the bottom. Some are even attracted to the refuge of abandoned oil-drilling platforms.

Long lives may be necessary to perpetuate rockfish. Ocean conditions change with oscillations of currents in patterns measured in decades. Even slight changes in the predominant temperatures and the availability of favored foods can be disastrous for some fish.

The survival of offspring might be all but eliminated for years. If the adults can make it through, they can reproduce again in the favorable years. Slow growth and long lives have proved a successful strategy for the venerable rockfish – at least until recent years.

Exploitation of Rockfish
Rockfish have a wonderful flesh considered by many, myself included, as delicious. They are also not that hard to catch. They have been an important diet for the native people of the West Coast for thousands of years. They were also a food source for the explorers and settlers arriving here from Europe and other parts of the world.

Over the last 50 years, a fishery has developed that more fully exploits the rockfish resource. This fishery helps feed people around the world. It drives an industry that significantly contributes to the economies of coastal communities. Facing a collapsing commercial salmon industry, many fishers in towns like Newport and Astoria have shifted their efforts to ocean groundfish, including rockfish.

Hundreds of boats ply the continental shelf and slope of the eastern Pacific searching for groundfish like petrale sole, sablefish and lingcod and also bringing to market dozens of species of rockfish. Some target their desired prey with vertical hook and line; others troll with great arrays of hooks; still others trawl large nets through the water column or bounce them along the bottom. The industry emerged off Washington, Oregon and California in the 1950s. Through a trade agreement, most of the West Coast rockfish were sold in markets as red snapper. By the early 1980s, the catch of rockfish had peaked.

Largely to reduce competition by foreign fishing operations near United States borders, in 1976 Congress passed the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, asserting U.S. control of fishing rights to 200 miles from our shores. This act also established regional authorities to manage fisheries within this zone.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) is responsible for managing federal fisheries for 55 species of rockfish as well as other fish along the West Coast. Theoretically, the council assesses the abundance of each species, sets harvest levels and allocates the resource among commercial gear types—while also reserving fish for the state-managed recreational fisheries.

Disastrous Results
However, making these decisions rationally requires extensive information about what is happening beneath the waves of the Pacific Ocean. With information hard to come by, PFMC nonetheless attempts to manage the fisheries. Some of the results have been disastrous.

The PFMC must consider a rockfish stock to be overfished when it declines to less than 25 percent of its unfished level. They must then create a plan for rebuilding the stock. One rockfish after another has been granted the dubious distinction of being overfished; some call the process “serial depletion.”

Pacific Ocean perch, already stressed by the foreign fleets during the 1960s, have plummeted. Others have followed, including cowcod, canary rockfish, dark-blotched rockfish and widow rockfish. The population of bocaccio off California is down to about 2 percent of historic levels, prompting the International Union for Conservation of Nature to list the bocaccio as critically endangered.

More rockfish species may be in trouble; but, it’s hard to tell in some cases. Of the 55 species managed by the PFMC, so little is known about 47 that they are classed “status unknown.”

Politics and Rockfish
Responding to the decline of rockfish, and also of other species like the lingcod, the PFMC began restricting the fishery. Limits have been placed on the overfished stocks. Attempts have been made to modify trawl nets to reduce impacts to rocky reefs. Lines have been drawn to create a no-fishing zone to try to protect cowcod.

California has issued regulations to outlaw targeting of juvenile rockfish (a restaurant market had developed that preferred plate-sized rockfish to others older and larger!). But it was the trip limits that have really rolled the industry. Allowable landings of healthy stocks have in some cases been severely reduced because fish that are in trouble are often caught incidentally along with the targeted species. If excess or prohibited fish are caught, fishermen are required to dump the dead fish back into the sea.

How many fish are thus wasted, and of what species, is unknown. This is primarily because the West Coast groundfish fishery is among the few major fisheries in the world that has not established a mandatory at-sea observer program. 

In other fisheries, observers ride along on a percentage of fishing trips and impartially record information about species that are caught and discarded. They are generally trained in fisheries science and can provide other biological information as well. Observer programs are vital tools fishery managers need in order to make informed decisions.

Managers Use Guesswork
Without an observer program, managers use guesswork as they further restrict or encourage fishing effort. Wrong guesses can push species into further decline, extending by years the time it will take to bring the stock back to levels that can be sustainably fished. Conversely, unjustified restrictions slash the incomes of fisherpeople and processors and harm the communities that rely on fish coming to shore.

Cuts into trip limits during the past few years have reduced this fishery’s contribution to the economies of coastal towns by tens of millions of dollars. Many face the possibility of losing their boats — or their homes. Some have already left the industry; others would like to find a way out. In some areas, the infrastructure of processing plants and supply stores is falling apart.

In January of 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce issued a disaster declaration, finally acknowledging the dire situation of the West Coast groundfish failure. This set the stage for relief funds to be sent to the communities most affected. In June, Congress approved $5 million in community relief.

However, the money has been caught up in a bureaucratic loop; at this time, no money has made it to the people who need it. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has publicly chastised the National Marine Fisheries Service for a lack of initiative in expediting the distribution of these funds. Wyden has promised to see to it that the money makes it past the gauntlet of red tape.

Temporary relief is important, but many fishers and community residents are stubborn enough to hope that the fishery can continue for future generations. In December, Congress took a big step towards the goal of sustainable fishing by appropriating money to begin a West Coast observer program.

If the initial $2.3 million can be supplemented and the program continued for several years, the information gathered can help the PFMC make the wise decisions necessary to bring the fishery around. In addition, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the states plan expanded research that will increase the knowledge about rockfish stocks, habitat and ocean conditions.

No Easy Recovery
No one expects a quick and easy recovery for the depleted rockfish. The fact is that these fish have long lives and a low level of reproductive success. They grow slowly and may not even begin to spawn for decades, in many cases.

Many scientists, and others, believe that fishing effort cannot continue at its present levels. Biologically and economically there are simply not enough fish to support all the boats licensed to harvest them. The PFMC has declared that the commercial fleet on the West Coast needs to be reduced by at least 50 percent.

Given the current situation, it is very likely that this will happen. Whether the fleet will downsize through bankruptcy or with the assistance of an industry/government partnership, to buyout permits and boats, remains to be seen.

One encouraging sign is that Congress is giving consideration to the rockfish crisis early in this session. Senator Wyden arranged a Commerce Committee field hearing, held January 16, 2001, in Newport, Oregon, to look at this issue. Congresswomen Darlene Hooley and Nancy Pelosi, Senators Gordon Smith, Patty Murray, John Kerry and Barbara Boxer, Congressmen Pete DeFazio, David Wu, Sam Farr and Wayne Gilchrest, and many others are paying close attention.

The rockfish crisis calls for bipartisan political action. The management challenge is to find solutions that protect these remarkable animals while respecting the needs of communities that depend upon the harvest from the sea. Here we clearly observe an economy wholly dependent on the environment. We are actually bumping up against the finite ability of the oceans to feed the people of this planet.

Fishers are optimists. Many think that some species will prove more abundant than presently believed. I hope they’re right. The challenge to fishers is to demonstrate that they can fish clean, bringing in abundant species efficiently while avoiding the rebuilding stocks. Getting the observer program operating will benefit both fish and fishers.

Fish ecologist Milton Love has dedicated much of his life to the study of rockfish. His personal favorite is the cowcod. I asked him what it is that endears these fish to him. “Maybe it’s their child-like expression,” said Milt, “kind of like Saint Francis of Assisi. And they’re so big and stupid. All they really want is a place to stick their head, a rocky crevice or wherever, just so it’s dark and they feel safe, even though most of their body is sticking out and vulnerable.”

I was starting to understand. “Yes,” said Milt, “if you’re a saint in this life, you’ll come back as a cowcod.”

Rockfish on the Web
Do not, I repeat, do not forgo a tour of The Love Lab, sponsored by Milton Love, Ph.D.:

Second stop, Pacific Marine Conservation Council:  

This article was reprinted, with permission, from


When this article was written by Peter Huhtala, he was the Rockfish Campaign Coordinator for the Pacific Marine Conservation Council. He wrote from Astoria, Oregon.

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