Rules May Not Be Saving Threatened Fish Off California Coast

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Canary Rockfish. (NOAA)

Canary Rockfish. (NOAA)

MONTEREY (CBS 5) — Summertime is rock fishing season, and business is booming on party boats that take anglers out to catch them.

Some rockfish species have been overfished and are illegal to catch. But fishermen say the rules aimed at saving the fish are killing them instead.

Glenn Huber has caught everything from Wahoo in Tonga to Dorado in Mexico. But on one recent charter boat trip off Monterey he noticed two protected species, the canary and yellow-eyed rockfish were dying, even though fishermen were supposedly doing the right thing by throwing them back in.

“They can’t get back down under the surface. And once we drifted away from the fish floating on the surface the seagulls would just tear into it and eat it,” Huber said.

A CBS 5 crew saw it happen on another party boat. Time and time again, fishermen were tossing canary rockfish back into the ocean, where seagulls gobbled them up. And it wasn’t just the canary fish. It was the same with other fish too small to keep.

“It was like 100 percent mortality rate. They were all dying,” said Huber. “I think it’s happening every day.”

So what’s going on? Experts such as Captain Tom Mattusch say because rockfish are deep water fish, they have to be released the right way to recompress.

“They need a little bit of help. They need to get down to the point where they are neutrally buoyant and can swim away on their own,” Mattusch said.

Mattusch is working with marine biologists to develop techniques to save them. He took CBS 5 out on his boat, the Huli Cat, to show us how.

When they are reeled in from 180 feet down, rockfish develop an air pocket to survive. “Things get pushed out, their eyes might bug out,” said Mattusch. All that air makes them float and prevents them from going back down on their own.

But that can all be reversed by lowering them back down to depth. After reaching 60 feet, the air pocket will literally recompress and the fish will swim off and survive. On Mattusch’s boat they use a special hook to lower the fish down.

Studies have shown the little low tech device could potentially save a threatened species. But Mattusch’s charter boat is one of the very few who have one on deck.

Why? CBS 5 took that question, and video of seagulls gobbling up the rockfish, to John Budrick at the California Department of Fish and Game. He recognized the situation immediately.

“This is something on board fishing vessels that don’t use descending devices,” Budrick said. “They should have a descending device on board, and have it fully rigged and ready to go. It is to some degree negligence.”

What is the Department of Fish and Game doing about it? “We have been distributing these brochures (.pdf) to anglers in multiple ways, at bait shops, harbormaster offices all across the state,” said Budrick.

But he admits Fish and Game regulations only forbid anglers from bringing canaries back to shore. There are no regulations about release techniques. “It’s a voluntary thing that anglers should undertake on their own accord,” Budrick said.

“There is a lot of ocean out there and there is only so much that can be done to patrol those waters every day,” said Budrick.

Huber said that shouldn’t be an excuse. “I want something to fish for in the future. There has got to be a better way. There just has to be.”

Some experts lower the rockfish down by deflating the air bladder with a needle, but Fish and Game does not recommend that because the fish’s internal organs could be damaged. The bubble that comes out of their mouths when they are caught is actually their stomach pushed out, not the air pocket.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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