The B.C. fish you’ve likely never heard of that’s confounding trawlers and officials


A species of fish you’ve probably never heard about has made a major comeback from being endangered, but now B.C. fishermen can’t avoid catching it, threatening their ability to earn a living.

“This is a great news and a terrible news story,” said Brian Mose, a skipper and representative of the Deep Sea Trawlers Association in B.C.

Bocaccio rockfish are among the largest of the dozens of types of rockfish that live along the Pacific coast of North America. Their name is derived from an Italian term meaning “big mouthed.”

Rockfish are slow-growing, but long-lived — with some living more than 100 years — and, as is the case with bocaccio, they are easily overfished as bycatch when fishermen target other more valuable groundfish such as cod and sole.

A bocaccio rockfish swims near a rocky outcropping around 116 metres under water off the coast of California. (Linda Snook/NOAA)

Scientists say that over the past 50 years, stocks of bocaccio rockfish have declined around 95 per cent. 

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada first recognized the species as threatened in 2002, but as stocks continued to plummet, the fish was reclassified as endangered in 2013.

The good news is that since the early 2000s officials with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, environmentalists, Indigenous leaders and fishermen have come together to put in place a suite of management practices to avoid catching the fish and help it recover.

“Bocaccio itself is a good example of a stock declining, stakeholders, the department realizing that something is amiss, responding to that, and then having a positive outcome,” said Adam Keizer, a regional manager with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

A bocaccio rockfish in a rocky reef habitat about 50 metres under water off the coast of California. (Rick Starr/NOAA)

Those measures include having fishermen avoid areas where the fish are known to be, setting restrictive amounts for what fishermen are allowed as bycatch, and donating any proceeds from the sale and processing of bocaccio that are caught to funding the recovery effort.

Then, in 2016 something happened that few people were expecting. There was a massive birthing event, which created what appears to be an off-the-charts number of bocaccio all along the B.C. coast.

“There are fewer places now that we can go and not intercept them and this is across a very large area,” said Mose. “It used to be hot spots, the B.C. coast is becoming the spot.”

The groundfish fishing vessel Frosti, operating in the waters off the coast of British Columbia. (Deep Sea Trawlers Association in B.C.)

And so while it’s good news that bocaccio may soon be removed from the endangered list, their growing numbers are creating a new challenge for the fishing industry.

The strict limits on how many bocaccio you can catch comes with a stiff penalty: once you catch the weight limit, you can no longer fish for any type of species. 

“We have skippers all over the coast going ‘holy crap.’ Some that were afraid to go fishing,” said Bruce Turris, executive manager for the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society.

A bocaccio rockfish in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. (Dr. Dwayne Meadows/NOAA)

Some fishermen are worried that if they go out on the water, they’ll catch their limit of bocaccio and then be prevented from fishing at all.

“Have I just caught enough fish to shut down my operation and put 50 or 60 people out of a job for the balance of the year?” Mose said of fishermen’s concerns.

According to Mose and Turris, the groundfish or trawl fishery in B.C. is the largest by volume of catch and value. Between 140,000 and 150,000 tonnes of fish are caught and processed each year.

‘Balancing act’

To temper the effect bocaccio is having on the industry, Fisheries and Oceans Canada responded this year by raising the amount of bycatch allowed.

Stakeholders hope that more assessments and surveys of just how many bocaccio are out there will allow for more adjustments or other measures, but allowing enough of the juvenile fish to reach maturity is an important part of their recovery.

All parties agree that collaboration was instrumental in protecting the species, and collaboration is what’s needed to face this new challenge.

“It’s a balancing act,” said Keizer, who added that the approach to the recovery of bocaccio and managing its return lays out a potential roadway to rebuilding other species facing a similar fate.



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