Is the Alaska charter fishery threatening rockfish?

If ever there was a fish with a hankering for life in the slow lane, Pacific rockfish would fill the bill.

Most live long lives — some approaching 200 years.

But adventureous?  Not exactly. Rockfish can hang out for decades in the same rocky outcrops and boulder fields where they grew up.

New research by federal scientist Christina Conrath of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle examining rougheye, blackspotted and shortraker rockfish has determined that females may not start spawning until they're as old as 27 but continue well past the century mark. However, when conditions are poor, they won't waste the energy on sex and offspring.

"They produce stronger and better young as they age," noted Brittany Blain, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.

But long lives don't necessarily mean large populations. In Southcentral Alaska, increasing restrictions on halibut fishermen aboard charter boats may be leading to growing angler pressure on a species ill-equipped to handle a new barrage of anglers.

"There does seem to be an increase in harvest that coincides with trends in the halibut fishery," said Homer-based state fisheries biologist Scott Meyer.  "I can't say for sure how much of the increased demand for rockfish is driven by changes in halibut size (anglers are catching considerably smaller halibut than they were a decade ago), restrictions in the charter fishery, or increased attention to rockfish in fishing magazines, or by charter captains.

"Anecdotally I have heard that charter boats are targeting rockfish on days closed for halibut – that may be happening a little bit, but charter logbook data shows that on days closed to halibut fishing, rockfish harvest was way down.

"However, the total for the year is still going up in most ports. They are still keeping more rockfish …"

Although 30-plus species of rockfish live in the Gulf of Alaska, only about 10 are harvested by sport anglers. They break down into two types:

— Pelagic rockfish that travel in large schools around or above rocky areas throughout the water column, species such as the black, dusky or dark rockfish. Anglers often label them black bass or sea bass, but there are no true bass in Alaska.

— Non-pelagic species that hug rocky bottoms. Unlike pelagic, they may be solitary or travel in small schools and they're typically much more colorful — none more so than the gorgeous yelloweye rockfish, typically misnamed "red snapper."

[Compare Alaska rockfish species]

Pelagic species account for most of the sport-harvest increases, although yelloweye are popular, too.

Since the mid-1980s, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists have been concerned about rockfish stocks, due to their extreme longevity, low productivity and how easy some are to find and catch in rocky outcrops. Alaska's annual harvest typically averages about 90,000 fish.

"For years," Meyer said, "we have been watching declines off the West Coast and British Columbia and seeing the extreme measures that had to be put into place. Naturally we want to avoid that here."

He said several important factors make rockfish vulnerable to overfishing:

— The rocky habitats many prefer are easy to pinpoint on navigational charts or with sonar.

— They're easy to catch once located.

— Their swim bladder, a balloon-like organ, makes them unlikely to survive catch-and-release fishing. Gasses in the bladder expand when rockfish are brought up from the depths.

"It's just like you coming up from the depths, you're going to explode. Your lungs are going to come out of your mouth," said Soldotna fisherman and inventor Russ Morrison. "Essentially, it's the same thing."

In human divers, it's called the bends. In rockfish and other deep-water species, it's called barotrauma, and it's quite dramatic — bulging eyes, stomach protruding out of the mouth, skin stretched tight.

Not long ago, Fish and Game conducted a three-year study in Prince William Sound on how many rockfish survive release. The survival rate of yelloweye released at the surface was found to be only 22 percent, while the survival rate if released down where they were caught soared to 99 percent.

New methods of releasing rockfish are helping save them.

[Deepwater rockfish release]

Morrison, for instance, has created a Deep Water Fish Release tool. The device looks like an oversized hitch pin clip. Place the shaft through the fish's lip, attach a weight to the bottom, run the line back down and jerk a couple of times to free the fish when it's on the bottom. The device can be placed inline, so an angler can keep fishing without having to reel up and re-rig.

Morrison's device is on sale at several Alaska locations, as well as a few in Washington and Canada. So is another called the Catch & Release Recompression Tool invented by Alaska fishing guide Ace Callaway.

"It's just a matter of getting educated about putting the fish back, the awareness of what the problem is," Morrison said. "Joe Fisherman … may not be aware that rockfish can be put back. When they are, 99 percent of them will say, 'Yeah, I'll take (a release tool).'"

Despite improved release methods, concerns persist about the species' future and how much fishing pressure rockfish can withstand.

"There used to be a lot of rockfish in Resurrection Bay," said Leslie Pemberton, owner of Puffin Fishing Charters in Seward who has guided sport fishing charters there for more than 30 years. "I wouldn't say many charters are targeting rockfish, but there's a tremendous amount of pressure on the few rockfish in the bay from recreational anglers."

Increasingly strict regulations imposed on halibut anglers fishing from charter boats have led to more and more private vessels out of Seward. "Everybody and their mother has a boat now," Pemberton said. "It's ridiculous."

Charter boat anglers are limited to two halibut, and one must be less than 28 inches, or about 7 pounds. Anglers on their own get two fish of any size. Plus, charter anglers can only keep four halibut a year.

Given those restrictions, more and more charter anglers are turning to other fish, including rockfish.

"But I don't see them being depleted, particularly by the charter fleet," Pemberton said. "It's just not as popular as a fishery, especially when salmon are available, so they're not really hammered by us."

But nobody doubts rockfish are vulnerable, and biologists plan to keep a close eye on regulations, which now permit anglers four fish per day, only one non-pelagic.