Bocaccio rockfish: Endangered and conserved.

Photo: Patrick Webster, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Patrick Webster, flickr creative commons.

We're shining the spotlight on Canada's most threatened flora and fauna; the ones that are at risk of no longer blooming, crawling, or running within our borders. Climate change, pollution, and habitat destruction are just some of the anthropogenic factors contributing to declining numbers of these plants and animals. Here, we reflect on the importance of species diversity, and what people like you and I can do to help maintain ecological integrity within Canada.

Common Name: Bocaccio Rockfish
Scientific Name: Sebastes paucispinus
Where in Canada: Pacific Coast
IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

When we gaze at the mountains and sunset reflecting off the ocean, it’s easy to forget about the critters below the surface. Unlike the eagles and douglas firs we rarely come face to face with rockfish. And if things don’t change soon, we may never be able to.

Bocaccio rockfish are native to Canada’s Pacific coast, and have been listed as critically endangered under the IUCN Red List since 1996. They are also listed as endangered under the Government of Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

These fish have a slimy pink or brown colour with spines on their backs. Their range extends from Baja California to Alaska, living in rocky ocean reefs and near the ocean bottom at depths of 27-320 meters. Some juvenile rockfish tend to stick to shallower waters and stay near reefs, and adult bocaccio rockfish can live to be about 50 years old.

There are many rockfish populations that are struggling on the Pacific coast because they live a long time, grow slowly and don’t begin reproducing for many years. Many rockfish do not get the chance to reproduce before they are caught. Bocaccio rockfish reproduce four or five years into their lives, which is earlier than some other types of rockfish, but their populations have become extremely small and are particularly in danger from overfishing. When these rockfish get caught and are re-released back into the ocean, they often have a hard time surviving.

Bocaccio rockfish are critically endangered because they have been overfished. They are also accidentally caught as bycatch, which is when fishers catch species that they are not targeting. Meanwhile, bottom trawling fishing boats have destroyed a lot of rockfish habitat by damaging the ocean bottom and reefs where rockfish live. Warmer ocean temperatures have also been associated with decreased bocaccio rockfish populations. It is possible that climate change is having an effect on this species.  

Fisheries and Oceans Canada created Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) between 2004 and 2007, where fishing is not allowed. Closing areas to fishing should help bocaccio rockfish populations to recover since the fish within the area will able to reproduce and mature, rather than being fished to extinction. If rockfish populations recover and become numerous enough, they will expand out of their conservation areas and once again be available for commercial and recreational fishing.

RCAs are a great way to protect rockfish, but they also have their challenges. It is hard to enforce fishing closures and prevent fishing in all these areas at all times, since the government has very limited resources and people to monitor these area. It is thus critical that fishermen take responsibility for rockfish by finding out where RCAs are located and make sure we fish only outside of them.

Whether you are fishing commercially or recreationally, perhaps with your grandpa in the summer, make sure you are all aware of RCAs and are not fishing in them. You can click here to see where Rockfish Conservation Areas are located in British Columbia.

If you see anyone fishing in a Rockfish Conservation Area you can help by reporting it! Record the date, time and location of the illegal fishing; include a description of the people fishing and their boat; and record any other evidence that might still be on the scene. Then, as soon as possible, you should call the Department of Fisheries and Oceans at 1-800-465-4336 to report your sighting (In Vancouver, call 604-607-4186). The provincial Ministry of the Environment also has a toll free line that you can call to report suspected poachers or polluters: 1-877-952-7277.

The department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the British Columbia Wildlife Federation also offer rewards of up to $2,000 for information that helps to lay a charge against a person harming fish and wildlife. So once you’ve reported a RCA violation, you can call British Columbia Wildlife Federation at 1-888-881-2293 for information about rewards.

If you live near a RCA and you regularly see people fishing in it, don’t hesitate to grab a megaphone and announce to fishermen that they are in an RCA where fishing is prohibited. Often people are simply misinformed and will skedaddle if informed that their activities are illegal. I know of instances where this approach has been successful.

There is also ongoing monitoring of some RCAs with cameras. So to the illegal fishers out there: be warned, you might end up on camera and get tracked down!

The good news is, bocaccio rockfish spawning was at its very lowest in the 1990s and is now starting to recover. Conservation efforts could be working, and if we continue to watch out for bocaccio rockfish, there is hope that their populations can one day make a comeback.  

Photo: NOAA Photo Library, flickr creative commons.

Photo: NOAA Photo Library, flickr creative commons.

You can learn more about species in Canada on the IUCN Red List by searching here.