Researchers from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are spending nearly 10 weeks at sea surveying black, blue and deacon rockfish. The fish is important to coastal communities like Charleston, which rely on tourism from people who plan fishing trips. Businesses like charter boats, hotels and restaurants depend on that tourism for their local economies. In 2017, ODFW abruptly closed rockfish season early, devastating local businesses. Leif Rasmuson is the lead researcher on the rockfish project. He joins us with details on the survey and what the team hopes to learn.

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The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Last month, a team of researchers from Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife started the state’s first survey of three species of rockfish. The study is going to last about 10 weeks in total. The researchers are looking for rockfish not in the deep ocean but just off the Oregon coast. They say the results could benefit commercial and recreational anglers along with the coastal communities that rely on those industries. Leif Rasmuson is the lead researcher on this project and he joins us now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.

Leif Rasmuson: Hi, Dave, thanks for having me.

Miller: What are rockfish?

Rasmuson: Rockfish are what we call a groundfish. They’re a group of fish species that live mostly near the bottom of the ocean. But what’s really cool about rockfish, they’re in the genera Sebastes which means magnificent, is that they’re incredibly diverse. We have over 80 species in Oregon and there are just hundreds of species along the northeastern Pacific Ocean. So they’re just this incredibly diverse group of animals. If you can find a place in the ocean that could have a certain type of animal live there, around here a rockfish has probably figured out a way to use that area. So they are a really fun animal to study for that reason.

Miller: The survey is of black, blue, and deacon rockfish. How different are they?

Rasmuson: They’re pretty similar to each other in that they’re what we call semi-pelagic. So they don’t live right hard on the bottom like a lot of other rockfish. They form schools and they come up off the bottom during the day. Because they’re schooling like that, that’s actually what allows us to use some of the techniques we’re using to study the fish. So yeah, they’re pretty unique in that sense that they’re schooling like that. The blue and deacon rockfish look incredibly similar to each other. Actually, up until about 10 years ago, we would have just called those blue rockfish. But my predecessor at ODFW actually worked and described that deacon rockfish were a different species. Although we had been fishing them for years in Oregon, we didn’t even know that they were deacons.

Miller: When I see rockfish in the grocery store, before I turn them into say fish tacos, they don’t have any other name. It just says rockfish. What am I buying?

Rasmuson: It really depends what fishery they’re coming from. Like I said, we have 80-something species in Oregon. If they were caught out deeper on the continental shelf areas, then oftentimes we get what are called widow rockfish or yellowtail rockfish, canary rockfish. If you’re in kind of high-end Chinese restaurants and such, where they’re serving live rockfish, you’ll see China rockfish, vermillion rockfish.. so it’s really dependent. It’s actually very surprising the way that we lump all those things together yet they are very diverse in what you could be eating.

Miller: How important are rockfish as a commercial fishery? Because, I have to say, we’ve talked about salmon on this show probably 100 times, for obvious endangered species and cultural reasons. We almost never hear about or talk about rockfish. How important are they?

Rasmuson: Rockfish are an incredibly important commercial species. From a commercial fishing standpoint, most of the fishing is occurring on the continental shelf. It’s not for the species we’re studying here; they’re out deeper. That said, we do have nearshore fisheries for these black rockfish. And then we have this kind of interesting nexus; we have charter boats where tourists coming out to the coast can pay to go fishing on those boats. And there’s an individual running the boat who it’s their livelihood. It’s a commercial operation for them, yet they’re fishing under a recreational license. You have that kind of interesting nexus there. But from a monetary..

Miller: So a kind of a charter boat, tourism industry nexus there.

Rasmuson: Yeah, exactly.

Miller: And then in terms of a commercial fishery, you’re saying rockfish are important, but maybe the species that are most fished are a little bit further out; not the near coast that you’re studying.

Rasmuson: Correct. For the majority of them. We do have what we call our commercial nearshore fisheries. Especially in places like Port Orford. They are quite well known for their nearshore rockfish fisheries. So they have a commercial industry. I don’t know the exact numbers off the top of my head, but the catch numbers for those, relative to what’s on the shelf, are lower. Yet they serve an interesting special market in that those fish can be kept alive or things like that. So it’s a niche market.. more of those nearshore fisheries, I would say, in the commercial sense.

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Miller: What is the idea? What’s the reason for this survey now?

Rasmuson: Black rockfish for our recreational fleet, including those charter boats, but also those nearshore commercial [fisheries], are really the bread and butter of the fleet. So you mentioned salmon and salmon is wildly important in Oregon and we’re having a great year. But, if you look at our annual catch -- in the ocean, not looking at rivers or things -- most recreational fishers are catching rockfish or groundfish. And, of those rockfish they’re catching, 90% of them or more are black rockfish. So the implications of that fishery, mostly just black rockfish, is extremely huge. In 2017, we attained our full quota; we caught all the fish that we’re allowed to catch in a year. So the boats couldn’t keep going fishing for them. By doing that, the tourists who are coming out stopped coming to the coast, you lost some revenue at hotels, you lost revenue at restaurants. So the implications of what happens if we don’t catch black rockfish or if we close it early, are far reaching beyond just people going fishing. You have economic impacts to these coastal communities which really rely on that tourism industry.

Miller: If this is the first survey of its kind, this 10 week up and down the Oregon nearcoast survey of these species of rockfish, then what kind of data have you used in the past to manage these fisheries?

Rasmuson: When we manage rockfish in Oregon, we manage them under the Magnuson-Stevens [Fishery Conservation and Management] Act, which was passed by Congress. And then they created fisheries management councils. Oregon is part of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. We get together and we do these modelling exercises effectively to determine the size of the population. What we put into those models are, how many fish are being caught by the recreational fisheries, how many are caught by the commercial fisheries, any scientific data, even just an OSU thesis could be a useful tool.. things like that. So really what we’re doing is we’re managing based on what we see the fisheries catching. We aren’t putting in there an idea of the population size.

Miller: So, you have no idea right now how many rockfish there actually are? All you know are how many are being caught. Is that a fair way to put it?

Rasmuson: We have a best guess. When you do those modelling exercises and you put in the catch data, we can do an okay job at guesstimating how big our population is. But we struggle to always say how big it is. We can usually say if the population is going down or going up from the catch. We have a rough guess but we don’t have a real accurate guess. So that’s what we’re trying to do is to solidify and strengthen our ability to enhance that guess and make it more precise so that we can do a better job managing into the future.

Miller: What does the work of this survey actually entail? How are you looking for these fish?

Rasmuson: What we do is we’re using a ‘fish finder’, just like what you envision when you go out on a boat or something and you’re looking for a school fish. Except ours is a little bit fancier in that it writes to a computer. With a fish finder, I take data seven times a second and I record that data all the way from the top of the ocean down to the bottom. And then as I go along we sit inside of the boat, we watch the fish finder, and when we see a school of fish.. We designed a suspended underwater camera system in our group. The camera system has two cameras on the front that look at the fish but from slightly different angles. If you look at the same thing with two cameras at slightly different angles, you end up with the ability to measure how long it is, just based on the geometry. And then we have another camera that looks down at the bottom to tell us what might be right there on the bottom. With the fish finder, I can also know what species of fish are in there that I’m seeing on my fish finder and how long they are, the length of those fish. I can actually take that data from the fish finder, do a whole bunch of math and I can convert that into a population size. So, at a really high level, we’re driving around using fish finders and then using underwater cameras to kind of ground-truth that data. The other big thing is, when we’re doing our modeling exercises, those ones I was talking about earlier, we need ages of fish. We manage fish based on trying to maintain some diversity in the age of the population, knowing that older fish create more larvae or babies and things like that. So what we also do is twice a day we fish with traditional hook and line gear, but in a very standardized way, so that we can collect some fish and sacrifice them so we can determine their age. What we do is we take the ear bones out of the fish and then we can break them in half and burn them. Basically we can count rings like we do on a tree and we can tell you how old that fish is. Put those three things together and that’s how we’re estimating the size of the population.

Miller: What are the challenges of doing this kind of work so close to the shore as opposed to further out into the ocean?

Rasmuson: Obviously one of the biggest challenges is, especially if you think about southern Oregon and the Brookings area or a place like that, the fishermen fish right in and amongst wash rocks. These rocks that are popping out of the ocean floor. Haystack off Cannon Beach is a famous example. But imagine that, times 700 rocks all around you. Running a boat in and amongst those rocks and stuff, it’s scary. It’s dangerous. There’s a lot of difficulties associated with trying to find weather conditions that you can get in and out of those areas. Because of that, we also have to use smaller boats. The federal government does surveys out deeper water, but they use 170 ft. ships [where] you have a full kitchen staff, you have a full crew, things like that. We’re just using chartered commercial boats that are only like 55 ft. If you put eight people on a 55 ft boat, for 10 days at a time, it’s a lot of tight interactions. There’s not a lot of space. We have one bathroom/shower combination we all share. So there’s also just kind of those social difficulties with having to have a small boat because we are working so close to shore.

Miller: I mentioned this is going to go on for 10 weeks, but what have you learned so far?

Rasmuson: So far, we’ve started up at the Washington border and the boat is actually right now off of Lincoln City. I’m off this week so I can talk with you guys and do some other stuff. But so far.. northern Oregon is mostly sand, so we have validated the hypothesis that rockfish are aptly named and do not live over sand. Which sounds kind of funny, but it’s actually a good thing we did. And the other thing is, in Oregon we have events where we have low oxygen that come onto the shelf. What we found is (we’re also taking oxygen measurements as we go down the coast) that oxygen from the Washington border all the way south, so far, has been extremely low. We’re finding that this is really pervasive; we’re seeing some changes in fish behavior influenced by that. I’d say that’s probably the most novel thing that we found just because these surveys have never been done and then having it happen during these low oxygen years really kind of throws an interesting component into the work we’re doing.

Miller: Just briefly, you did mention, seemingly in passing, that it’s been a great year for salmon. That was news to me; I guess I’m not used to hearing good news about fisheries or salmon in particular. What do you mean?

Rasmuson: The recreational fleet. I’m here in Newport; I’m right at the Hatfield Science Center. We’ve been seeing boats just going in and out, so I walk over and talk to fishermen. And people are coming back to the dock at like 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning, having already caught their limits of salmon. I’ve been in Oregon for quite a while now. I can’t remember a year that was that good in a long time. It’s mostly coho or silver salmon they’re catching. But, yeah, people are getting on to the fish, they’re getting their limits and so people are really happy. So that is a good thing that’s coming along.

Miller: Leif Rasmuson, thanks very much for joining us.

Rasmuson: Thank you.

Miller: That’s Leif Rasmuson. He is a Marine Fishery Research Project Leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and he is leading the team that’s doing a survey right now, off the coast, of three different rockfish species.

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