Click here for Merit McCrea – WHEELHOUSE SCOOP

Thursday, September 20, 2018
Name that spot

Let’s go deeper, skipper!
I heard it first this past June, when Capt. Louie Zimm texted a note to me and Capt. Ken Franke, President of the Sportfishing Association of California, with a photo of his hand-written notes, fresh from Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC). It read simply:

“75 fathom Rec.

Scorpion fish all year.

40 f line CCA Rec and Com

1 lingcod south of 40º 10’ "

However, this was just the first major step in the process. The advice of the Council still had to be reviewed and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service. So we had to keep it on the DL. Of course, the rumors have been flying through the fleet for months now — PFMC meetings are public.

At the most recent PFMC meeting this past week, the word was the new regulations were well on their way to implementation and come March 1, next year, we will once again have access to rockfish and other “federally managed groundfish” out to the PFMC 75-fathom point-to-point line.

Plus, a new PFMC line, roughly along the 40-fathom isobath inside the Cow Cod Conservation Area (CCA — San Nicolas Island, Santa Barbara Island, Hidden Reef, Cortes and Tanner banks) is drafted and we will be able to fish and possess rockfish and such while fishing inside that line. This represents a vast increase in the accessible area of the CCA.

In my early 20s, looking like a high school kid, running the Condor to fish cods out west of San Miguel Island daily, I got lots of advice from the old ganion-plunging codsters. In particular, I frequently heard this one bit of advice — “Let’s go deeper, skipper!” Of course, from up in the bow, those slinging jigs and plastics pushed for the shallow water. But it was true. The bigger fish bit codster’s ganions better out deep.

It was monster reds, and bocaccio, chillies and yellowtail. Huge olives, too. Out there one left the smaller blues behind. Many rockfish species start their lives living shallow and as they grow and mature, work their way into deeper water.

This new access to the new 40 line in the CCA and 75-line elsewhere is a major development, all the way around.

In recent months we’ve had the opportunity to participate in hook and line collection of rockfish out past the current 60-fathom line. Several other fleet vessels have worked with research teams in the deeper waters of the CCA.

For fish like chili peppers, their adult range barely starts at 60 fathoms, and there are major reefs that now hold them by the thousands in 65 and 70 fathoms, many well within 1/2-day range.

Places like Santa Barbara Island will gain a major back-up plan, should the game fish bite prove picky. The change will make SBI a much more viable option for yellowtail and seabass. If cappy swings and misses on the big game, anglers can be confident of making a catch anyway.

How did we get this back?

Fisheries management coupled with new research results, worked. The first piece is simple. We gave the fish a break and populations recovered. The second piece required innovation, research and positive results.

On the science end the progress was two-fold. Firstly, a lot more work was done to more confidently assess the populations of certain overfished species. When you don’t know much, you have to be precautionary and assume the most conservative numbers. Scien­tists learned more, discovered faster recovery rates and gained greater confidence in their numbers.

The second piece happened very close to home and has to do with developing and proving ways to successfully release rockfish — rather than floating them off into never, never land.

It was during the Channel Islands MPA process in 1998 when I first noted to Bob Fletcher, then SAC President, Patty Wolf — DFG, and several others, the assumption that a caught rockfish was a dead rockfish might be wrong, and we could release them with an inverted, old-school, wire milk crate by merely sinking them back to depth — recompressing them.

Previously, scientists tagging rockfish had been successfully “venting floaters” using hypodermic needles, out to 30 fathoms or so. But we’d had problems with some species, like vermillion. Their insides trapped the air in many small chambers.

Then Dr. Chris Lowe at CSULB had been able to tag and release a few rockfish from as deep as 740 feet out at platform Gail, in the middle of the Santa Barbara Channel. His acoustic “pinger” tags showed these fish had almost all survived. Yet they hadn’t been able to catch and tag very many in that first season.

The following season I was recruited to assist in this effort. We tagged a bunch. We eventually started to experiment, releasing fish too small to tag, with the basket — as well as a few with tags too. It worked! Two of his grad-students began projects to quantify how well simple recompression worked.

Independently, at least one other lab up north tested rockfish barotrauma recovery with recompression in tanks. Results were positive.

Now with 18 years of conservation, improved data on stock levels and a proven way to release rockfish from deep water, we’ve been given the go-ahead to try fishing ever deeper depths. In SoCal, the huge CCA backs up conservation measures elsewhere in the Bight.

Up north the Central Coast will start their 2019 season with access out to the PFMC 50 line. The North Central region — San Francisco — will open a month earlier than previously, and a level deeper — out to their PFMC 40 lines.

But here’s the rub. Firstly, it’s not yet. We’ll be fishing out this season as we have been. The changes are planned to become effective in March of 2019.

Then, it will be important to be aware, simply staying in “the right depth” won’t keep you legal. You’ll have to know the point-to-point boundaries or fish well shallower than their nominative 40- or 75-fathom depths. Inside the CCA the line will no longer be defined expressly by depth (currently 20 fathoms or 120 feet). Instead, it’ll be defined by the PFMC CCA 40-fathom point-to-point lines that will be published.

Secondly, you have to descend all deep water fish you release — no floaters! If sportboats trail strings of floating fish up-drift for the birds to pick at, we can be assured access to fish deeper waters will end. Plus, there’s the risk of getting a ticket for wastage of game, and perhaps, over-limits or even take of prohibited species.

So if you see bad actors being bad, hammer them first. Be­cause if we don’t, it could cost us all. What others do may be none of your business — until it is!

Don’t know how to release rockfish? Search “rockfish barotrauma” online and you’ll find a spiffy video on it.

* * *

Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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