Rockfish: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

A new statewide network of marine protected areas in California waters provides hope for depleted rockfish populations.

Rockfish, historically some of the most abundant fish in the ocean, are also-unfortunately for them-some of the tastiest. The firm, white flesh of many reddish rockfish can be recognized on the seafood menu as "red snapper." But over-fishing has depleted many populations such as one consumer favorite, the bocaccio, which the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates is two to four percent its historic levels. To help rebuild stocks, the California Department of Fish and Game is establishing zones all along the coast that restrict fishing.

Sebastes sp.
Sebastes sp. caught north of Fanny Shoals, CA, 300 ft. depth. Photo: R.D. Sage
Illustrations of rockfishes
Illustrations of various rockfishes by Howard Hammann. From: The Peterson Field Guide Series: A Field Guide to Pacific Coast Fishes of North America, by William N. Eschmeyer and Earl S. Herald, Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1983.


commercial fishermen
Commercial fishermen with a catch of rockfish.
Photo: John McCosker

Although there are about 70 species of rockfish (also known as rockcod) off California, all with individual life histories, most live between 30 and 100 years of age and take 10 to 15 years to reach sexual maturity. So once a population is significantly reduced, it can take decades for it to recover. Additionally, many different species often occur together-sharing a reef, for example-so fishing for one species may affect many others.

The protected areas, part of a larger plan to improve fisheries management to be in effect by January 2002, will include every habitat type from surf grass beds in intertidal zones to submarine canyons more than 600 feet below the surface.

Sebastes sp.
Sebastes sp. caught north of Fanny Shoals, CA, 300 ft. depth. Photo: R.D. Sage