Ocean perch stock rebuilt, could lead to more commercial fishing opportunities in 2019

Previously overfished perch population recovers 34 years ahead of schedule

Federal restrictions designed to protect Pacific ocean perch from overfishing have worked well enough for the Pacific Fishery Management Council to consider the fishery “rebuilt,” meaning it will relax restrictions. Once the new rules take effect in 2019 it should have significant economic value to the coast, experts say.

“It’s a big deal for fisheries along the coast,” said Phil Anderson, who works with Ocean Gold Seafood in Westport and serves as chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. “It’s another one in the line of species that were determined to be overfished here about a decade ago that has since been rebuilt.”

Pacific ocean perch have been overfished since the mid-1960s when foreign fleets targeted groundfish stocks, in particular Pacific ocean perch, off the U.S. West Coast. The mandates of the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing U.S. fisheries management, eventually ended foreign fishing within 200 miles of the coast. The first Federal trip limits to discourage targeting and to conserve a U.S. West Coast groundfish stock were implemented for Pacific ocean perch in 1979. Rebuilding plans for Pacific ocean perch were adopted in 2000 and 2003.

Pacific ocean perch is one of many species of groundfish, managed and regulated by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The fish, which live near the bottom of the ocean, mingle and protection of the perch has constrained the West Coast trawl fishery for decades.

“(Ocean perch) are what we call a choke species,” said Anderson. “We had restrictions in rockfish areas and closures intended to protect species like perch.”

Whiting, another groundfish species important to the local commercial fishery, have recovered as well, and this year trawlers have had a very good season.

“Having another species of fish that had been overfished rebuilt to a healthy population is going to have a real positive effect on commercial groundfish fishing off the coast,” said Anderson.

Local seafood processors could see a significant increase in the total weight of groundfish taken starting in 2019, when a new two-year fisheries management plan will be drafted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. While a targeted ocean perch fishery is unlikely, Anderson said quotas will likely rise significantly and more productive groundfish waters will be open to commercial harvest.

“The biggest benefit is going to be because the ocean perch are no longer a choke species, which restricts fishermen from targeting stronger populations like dover sole and whiting and thorny head,” he said. “The quotas and allowable catch limits are going to be much higher, like 18 times higher.”

The benefits to local seafood processors will be noticeable, said Anderson.

“Closer to home here in Grays Harbor we have Ocean Gold in Westport, which takes delivery of large amounts of Pacific whiting (also known as a Pacific hake), so it will affect businesses close to home here like the Ilwaco Fish Company, those operations that have a reliance or dependency on Pacific whiting.”

The management plan to protect Pacific ocean perch required sharp reductions in commercial and recreational fisheries targeting groundfish, and included widespread fishing closures through the establishment of Rockfish Conservation Areas off the West Coast and other measures.

“We are pleased to see that our management strategies have been successful in rebuilding this important groundfish stock, and want to acknowledge the industries’ cooperation and sacrifice in this effort,” said Anderson. “We also want to recognize the National Marine Fisheries Service for committing the resources to monitor and research groundfish stocks to improve the science used to sustainably manage these stocks.”