Deep-water rockfishes (in the genus Sebastes, which is Greek for “magnificent”) once supported vibrant commercial and recreational fisheries in southern California. In 2001, cowcod (Sebastes levis), one of the most prized rockfishes, was declared overfished and several “closed areas”, or Cowcod Conservation Areas (CCAs), were established to aid in rebuilding the population. The CCAs cover approximately 4,000 square nautical miles (or 14,700 square kilometers) of the seabed where cowcod were historically most abundant. Fishing for demersal, or bottom-dwelling, species is prohibited below 20 fathoms (36 meters or 120 feet) in the CCAs, and since other species that are not overfished inhabit the same areas as cowcod, fisheries for those species have also been severely restricted.
An adult cowcod (Sebastes levis) in high-relief, rocky habitats.
NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s remotely operated vehicle
(ROV) aboard the fishing vessel Outer Limits.
In 2003, scientists at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) and members of the Sportfishing Association of California (SAC) began conducting cooperative research to better assess the status of these groundfishes throughout southern CA. Since many of these rockfishes inhabit deep, rocky areas of the seafloor that are difficult to survey using traditional sampling tools (trawls, for example), the SWFSC has developed novel sampling techniques that employ sophisticated sonars and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to count fishes in these challenging environments. To improve the design of these surveys, members of the fishing community have provided decades of knowledge about where rockfishes are known to occur. Many of these surveys are conducted aboard sportfishing boats, which allows fishermen to work when fishing seasons are closed and helps strengthen ties between scientists and stakeholders. This cooperative research is truly a win-win for NOAA and members of the fishing community. Ken Franke, President of the Sportfishing Association of California and owner of the sportfishing vessel, Outer Limits, feels that “the partnership between NOAA and the vessels and captains in our fleet has been outstanding. The exchange of information between the scientists and the fishermen has clearly accelerated the data collection process, and in our view, has resulted in better protection of our resources and our access to the ocean through the data that we helped to obtain.”
Deploying NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s remotely operated
vehicle (ROV) from NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada.
A map of the areas surveyed during the 2012 Southern CA Bight cowcod survey.
This fall, scientists from the SWFSC are using a newly designed ROV to conduct a comprehensive survey of cowcod habitats throughout southern CA aboard the Outer Limits. This is the first survey of its kind since 2002 when the SWFSC surveyed the CCAs using a manned submersible to provide a baseline estimate of the cowcod population at the start of rebuilding. The goal of this latest survey is to evaluate the recovery of the cowcod population since the ban of bottom-contact fishing gear went into place, and also to examine the effectiveness of these closed areas as a tool for rebuilding depleted fish stocks. This project is also a central part of NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint-Southwest Regional Initiative, which strives to “ensure healthy habitats to support sustainable fisheries, protected resources and coastal economies”.
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Cowcod and bocaccio rockfishes at 43-Fathom Bank
Cooperative Fisheries Research in the Southern California Bight
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