What rockfish will Skipper Otto carry this year?

Jeff - May 17, 2021

How does Skipper Otto decide what fish to offer its members?

Well, our objective is both to protect marine ecosystems for many generations to come and to support a small-scale fishing way of life in coastal communities. But that’s no simple task! First, we look to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), which makes its decisions about what, where, and when we are allowed to fish. Conservation is DFO’s top priority, followed by food and ceremonial uses for Indigenous fishers, recreational fishing, and lastly, commercial fishing. Next, we rely on third-party watchdogs like Ocean Wise Seafood and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to keep an eye on DFO policy, to verify data, and to make recommendations about what species are the most sustainable choices for consumers. But fisheries science is complex and non-profit organizations don’t always have the resources to dig deep into the granular details of a specific fishery, so we look to independent investigations by other non-profit organizations and research by academic institutions to provide us with additional information. We have our own in-house Sustainable Fisheries Researcher, Jeff Scott, who helps us seek out and interpret new data. And in addition to all of this, we look to our fishing families for traditional, multi-generational knowledge, boots-on-the-deck experience, and their recommendations for what are the most sustainable fisheries out there.

Armed with all of this information, we first look for fisheries where there is agreement across the board about the sustainability of a fishery. And where there is disagreement, we dig deeper and do our best to make decisions with the health of people and the planet first. You won’t find this robust of a values-based sourcing process anywhere else, and we feel confident that the products our fishing families harvest for our members support long-term sustainable marine ecosystems and support a meaningful way of life in coastal communities. But we don’t want you just to take our word for it! We’d like to share with you a little more about how we decide which rockfish species to offer our members.

Which rockfish we’ve offered in the past

In 2020, Skipper Otto offered four species of Ocean Wise recommended BC rockfish to our members: yellowmouth rockfish (Sebastes reedi), yellowtail rockfish (Sebastes flavidus), and small quantities of both silvergray (Sebastes brevispinis) and canary (Sebastes pinniger) rockfish. All four species are caught incidentally in small numbers by our hake fisherman, Cary Williams, in his mid-water trawl net, and we’ve been proud to offer him and our members a fair price for these tasty fish. But other rockfish species also turn up occasionally in Cary’s hake and our other fishermen’s halibut and lingcod catches, most of which are not Ocean Wise recommended. These fish are landed by the fishermen in accordance with DFO regulations. Since they tend not to survive capture, they couldn’t be released even if regulations permitted it. To date, we haven’t been comfortable providing those rockfish species not recommended by Ocean Wise, even though we would otherwise jump at the chance to reduce waste while offering our fishermen fair prices for premium products our members would love. So we decided to take a closer look at the sustainability concerns around the rockfish caught in BC, to determine whether we could feel comfortable expanding our selection of this delicious group of whitefish.

Management of rockfish in BC is strict and robust

DFO’s management of groundfish (fish that typically live close to or on the ocean floor) in BC waters is widely recognized as a well-planned and well-implemented system for achieving biological goals. Skipper Otto has strong concerns about the socio-economic impacts of the system’s individual transferable quotas (ITQs; see our blog posts here and here for more info), but ITQs do have the benefit of placing hard limits on the amount of fish from each species that a fishing boat can legally catch. For example, if you are fishing for halibut and have a 5,000lb quota, you can fish until you have 5,000lbs of halibut and then you must stop. However, you must also have quota for any other species you catch. If you reach your maximum quota for those other species first – species which fetch a much lower price on the market — you are out of luck and you must stop fishing for halibut before you have filled your quota. In this way, fishermen are incentivized to work hard not to catch incidental species like rockfish, and every fish is accounted for through on-board live monitors or cameras which must be running on board vessels at all times when gear is in operation. The Pacific halibut and Pacific hake fisheries, each managed in partnership with the US, are both certified as sustainable by MSC due, in part, to these bycatch-limiting measures.

So why aren’t more rockfish species recommended by Ocean Wise?

Despite this close management of rockfish bycatch, there has still been significant concern regarding the vulnerability of rockfish caught incidentally in trawl, troll, and longline fisheries for other species. This is because no one actually knows that much about the health of BC’s rockfish stocks (a stock is a more-or-less discrete population of a given species). Many stocks haven’t been formally assessed by DFO, and many of those that have been assessed lack the quality data needed for highly reliable conclusions. With this sort of uncertainty surrounding many rockfish species’ stock status, many scientists look to the fishes’ biology to estimate how populations might be impacted by fishing. Rockfish species are long-lived, mature at late age, and many tend to congregate in easily exploitable shoals. They also tend not to survive if released after catch due to barotrauma, or the effects of gas decompression as they are pulled to the surface.

Because of these biological risk factors, most rockfish species are considered inherently vulnerable to overfishing, impacting the recommendations offered by Ocean Wise and other ratings groups. Ocean Wise currently labels 4 species of rockfish caught in BC fisheries as “Recommended,” unless they are caught by bottom trawl vessels. These species are the same four Skipper Otto has carried in the past:

  • Canary rockfish
  • Silvergray rockfish
  • Yellowmouth rockfish
  • Yellowtail rockfish

All of the other 57 (84%) rockfish species/gear combinations in BC are labelled as “Not Recommended.”

These recommendations are based largely upon the assessment of BC groundfish fisheries done by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program circa 2014 and updated in 2016 (click “Download PDF” on this page for the full assessment report). So, why are they not recommended? Well, it’s primarily the lack of data on rockfish stock status that led Seafood Watch to categorize most rockfish caught in BC as “Red/Avoid” (upon which Ocean Wise bases its label of “Not Recommended”). Wisely, Seafood Watch criteria and guidelines require a conservative assessment of a fishery’s impact upon a species when stock assessment or other formal data are missing for that species; as a result, the many unassessed rockfish species in BC received low default scores for this criterion, based upon the lack of data and on their high inherent vulnerability to fishing. However, if additional data became available and were to be assessed by Seafood Watch, then presumably the “Not Recommended” status would be reconsidered in light of that new data.

In addition to the lack of data, a handful of rockfish species garner special legal protection under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Due to their inherent vulnerability, and evidence showing steep declines in stock sizes over the past century (even when acknowledging the uncertainty over current stock sizes), the following rockfish species are listed on Schedule 1 of SARA:

  • Lonsgpine thornyhead (Special Concern)
  • Rougheye rockfish Types I & II (Special Concern)
  • Yelloweye rockfish (Threatened)

These listings require DFO to adopt special recovery measures for the listed species within their groundfish Integrated Fishery Management Plan (IFMP); they also automatically lower the sustainability score within Seafood Watch’s assessment.

Why Skipper Otto is willing to consider some non-Ocean Wise rockfish

The Seafood Watch report prioritized concerns about the unknown health of individual rockfish stocks in BC and gave less weight to the stringent measures in place to disincentivize bycatch in groundfish fisheries. We at Skipper Otto believe the specifics of Seafood Watch’s methodology did not adequately credit DFO’s management scheme for its effectiveness. In our view, many or even most rockfish species caught as bycatch in BC’s mid-water trawl, halibut longline, and lingcod troll fisheries could muster higher scores from the Seafood Watch assessment. Nevertheless, we prefer to be conservative when choosing the fish we’re comfortable buying and selling, and would rather err on the side of caution with rockfish, when the health of so many species remains uncertain.

If there is evidence, though, that Ocean Wise hasn’t yet considered in making its recommendations, we want to include that in our sourcing process. So, we’ve decided to impose two conditions for buying and selling rockfish species that are not currently recommended by Ocean Wise. We are willing to buy and sell “Not Recommended” rockfish if:

  1. There is strong evidence suggesting that a given stock is not overfished and is not subject to overfishing; AND
  2. The given stock is not listed on Schedule 1 of SARA as “ENDANGERED,” “THREATENED,” or of “SPECIAL CONCERN.”

(A searchable registry of species listed under Schedule 1 can be found here.)

We went looking for strong evidence from stock assessments performed recently by DFO. If these assessments demonstrated healthy stocks and had not yet been incorporated into Ocean Wise recommendations, we took this into consideration. We also consulted experts from outside DFO for their opinions on those assessments’ methodology and conclusions, to verify our own understanding.

What we found

Since the last update to the Seafood Watch report on BC groundfish, DFO has carried out several stock assessments of rockfish species. Some of these assessments offered good news: Pacific Ocean Perch, redstripe rockfish, and widow rockfish stocks are highly likely to be larger than DFO’s standard benchmark of a healthy population (i.e., they’re not overfished). They also concluded that it was highly likely that fishing efforts were not harvesting these fish faster than their populations could sustain (i.e., they’re not subject to overfishing). The experts we consulted, from environmental non-profits and academia, had only minor criticisms of these stock assessments’ methods, and no objections to their general conclusions. We therefore take this to be strong evidence that all Pacific Ocean Perch, redstripe rockfish, and widow rockfish stocks in BC are currently not overfished and not subject to overfishing. And it’s very likely that Seafood Watch and Ocean Wise would give these three species “recommended” status if they updated their recommendations today.

Recent stock assessments for rougheye and yelloweye rockfish also resulted in relatively healthy outlooks for these stocks; however, rougheye and yelloweye are both listed on Schedule 1 of SARA. Despite what we take to be fairly strong evidence that at least 3 stocks of these species are not overfished and not subject to overfishing, their inclusion on Schedule 1 places them off limits to sourcing by Skipper Otto.

The rockfish we are comfortable buying and selling

In total, Skipper Otto is currently willing to offer 7 rockfish species to our members. Four are Ocean Wise recommended, and the other three meet both of our conditions for non-Ocean Wise recommended rockfish. These species are:

Canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger)

Ocean Wise “Recommended”

Pacific Ocean Perch (Sebastes alutus)

Ocean Wise “Not Recommended;” but there is strong evidence from recent DFO stock assessments that all stocks in BC waters are healthy

Redstripe rockfish (Sebastes proriger)

Ocean Wise “Not Recommended;” but there is strong evidence from recent DFO stock assessments that all stocks in BC waters are healthy

Silvergray rockfish (Sebastes brevispinus)

Ocean Wise “Recommended”

Widow rockfish (Sebastes entomelas)

Ocean Wise “Not Recommended;” but there is strong evidence from a recent DFO stock assessment that the stock in BC waters is healthy

Yellowmouth rockfish (Sebastes reedi)

Ocean Wise “Recommended”

Yellowtail rockfish (Sebastes flavidus)

Ocean Wise “Recommended”

 

Skipper Otto’s hopes for the future of rockfish

We recognize that management of rockfish species in BC is not perfect. Even though the best available science suggests that the 7 species we may offer our members are sustainably fished, there are good reasons for concern over what are likely steep declines from these stocks’ historical abundances. Just as with salmon in BC, there used to be vastly more rockfish in the ocean; and, just as with salmon, the goal of management today is to ensure those populations increase again. The proliferation of DFO-mandated Rockfish Conservation Areas, where fishing is prohibited, along with the quota and monitoring systems in place to limit rockfish bycatch, makes us optimistic that rockfish stocks can rebound from the pressure overfishing put them under in the 20th Century. Success stories of rockfish stock rebuilding south of the border suggest these measures can achieve results relatively quickly.

And lastly, we buy our fish only from small-scale fishermen we trust. The rockfish we buy are never the actual targets of a fishing trip, but caught unintentionally while our fishermen pursue hake, halibut, or lingcod. Our fishermen work hard to avoid areas where large numbers of rockfish congregate, and the small quantities of fish they bring in are nothing compared to the numbers that factory bottom trawlers routinely scrape off the ocean floor (plus they treat their catch with much greater care to provide a tastier product!).

Our hope is that DFO continues to conduct formal stock assessments of more and more rockfish species, so that we can know with greater certainty the status of these fish, and possibly offer more variety to our members in the future—all while giving our fishermen an appreciative market for their bycatch.

Jeff - May 17, 2021


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What rockfish will Skipper Otto carry this year?

Jeff - May 17, 2021

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