As fishing guides diversify, rockfish feel the pressure

yelloweye rockfish
Yelloweye rockfish. Fish and Game is placing stricter limits on rockfish this season, which is says is to make sure the species doesn’t dip to unsustainable levels. (From ADFG)

Tourists are lured to the Kenai Peninsula every summer by the promise of big catches from the decks of saltwater fishing boats. That promise looms large in local lore: a sign proclaiming Homer the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” is the first thing anyone sees when they enter the city. And each spring, hundreds of boats each spring venture into Kachemak Bay for the annual Winter King Salmon Tournament.

But as regulations on halibut and king salmon fishing have ramped up in the last decade, charter guides have branched out into another species: rockfish. This year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is limiting rockfish harvest by emergency order to make sure the population doesn’t plummet to a point of no return.

“Things are OK. We’re just on an increasing harvest trend that is likely to lead to unsustainable levels,” said Mike Booz, area management biologist for the department’s division of sportfish.

Booz traced that trend back, in part, to 2014, when the council that manages fishing in Alaska’s federal waters passed a catch-sharing plan to allocate halibut harvest between commercial and sport fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast. Charters had to limit how much halibut they were allowed to catch. Booz said right away, charters started going more for rockfish.

Meanwhile, the department has tightened regulations on king salmon fishing, too, including closures and decreased bag limits. That’s as king salmon across Alaska continue to suffer.

Ray DeBardelaben owns Long Live the Kings lodge in Soldotna and is president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association. He also takes clients out on his saltwater boat, the O’Dea, out of Homer.

He’s been fishing since the 1980s, when he said it was possible to get a 200-pound halibut. He said he no longer targets the clientele that expects that sort of fishing.

“That clientele’s gone for me,” he said. “So I’ve really just spent money on marketing and got new clients. They pull up a halibut that’s 25, 30 pounds. And the first thing they say is – ‘wow.’”

He said there are still days when he’ll take clients out to fish for halibut, alone or for halibut and king salmon, together. But he said he started focusing more on trips for halibut and rockfish over the last seven years.

Rockfish are found further offshore — as far as the Chugach Islands in Cook Inlet, on the other side of Kachemak Bay State Park. They’re also found in Resurrection Bay, in the Chiswell Islands area, Booz said.

“That is a long way for a charter vessel to travel,” said Brian Ritchie, a charter operator out of Homer and vice president of the Homer Charter Association. “And it does increase fuel costs. But it’s something that businesses here have shown they’re willing to take on, and it’s something that we certainly adapted to.”

He said Homer-area fishermen have been eyeing rockfish abundance for a few years . Recently, the total rockfish harvest in Cook Inlet salt water skyrocketed, to over 50,000 fish a year — a 300% increase from the historical average between 2006 and 2013, according to Fish and Game. Most of the increased harvest of the species has been black rockfish, the department said.

Booz said rockfish, as a species, are susceptible to overharvest. They don’t migrate much, but instead stick to the spots they like, which makes them easier to catch.

“Because we know right where they’re going to be, every day,” Booz said.

Rockfish are also slow to mature, and live a long time. Black rockfish can live to be 50 years old.

Booz said that makes it hard for them to bounce back, too — which has happened to rockfish fisheries in the Lower 48. He said that’s another reason to be conservative with restrictions.

The new bag limits are three a day in Cook Inlet, down from five, and three in the Gulf Coast area, down from four. In both areas, just one of those fish can be non-pelagic.

Booz said this week’s announcement is an emergency order, for this season. Any longer-term regulation changes would have to pass the Alaska Board of Fisheries later this year, at its Lower Cook Inlet finfish meeting in Homer in November. Proposals to the board were due earlier this week.

Ritchie said fishermen in Cook Inlet are getting more used to diversifying, as regulations continue to shift. This year, for example, charters can’t fish for halibut on Wednesdays and some Tuesdays throughout the season.

“That kind of uncertainty, when it’s your business and it’s your job, can be stressful. And I think it’s been stressful the last two years, especially, for Homer-area businesses and operators,” he said.

Andy Mezirow, a Seward charter boat captain and member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said new plan to set up a recreational quota entity system, included in this year’s federal omnibus bill, will likely help with the pressure on rockfish because it could allow charters to catch more halibut.

Another challenge for charters has been increased gas prices, said DeBardelaben, who will start taking clients out for the season later this month. He’s also had to diversify in freshwater — with king runs suffering on the Kenai River, he instead takes clients out to fish for sockeye.

He thinks there’s been a mentality shift.

“I’ve had to change my attitude on how much fish do I need, how much fish do I want,” he said. “And I try to pass that onto my customers — the attitude of, ‘We’re going to go out and we’re going to have fun, and we’re going to catch some fish and we’re going to eat it.’”

He said clients want the experience of going out and catching fish, no matter the species.

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