New CCIRA study identifies key habitats for rockfish conservation

What’s at stake when it comes to conservation of fish populations on the Central Coast?  Frank Johnson of the Wuikinuxv Nation puts it this way: “We stand to lose a lot. If we lose all the fish, they’ll be no Wuikinuxv.”  In other words, as seafaring and fishing people, the culture, livelihood and physical sustenance of Central Coast Nations are tied directly to fish populations and the health of marine ecosystems. Rockfish are an important part of this equation.

Over his 40 years fishing Central Coast waters, Frank has witnessed profound changes in the size and abundance of rockfish. In the past, he says, the average yelloweye rockfish (or red snapper) was 15 to 20 pounds. “Now it is really seldom that you catch one that big,” he explains. “My guess is that there’s been about an 80% decline in catch of all bottom fish. I’ve seen the decline right from the start.”

In response to these kinds of concerns from local fishers, CCIRA launched a rockfish research project in 2013. Along with our collaborators, CCIRA has used traditional knowledge and science to publish four research papers and a comic strip that collectively tell a story about rockfish on the Central Coast.

the study sheds new light on how the design of marine protected areas, can be optimized to help support the long-term recovery of at least 22 species of rockfish that live in nearshore waters of the Central Coast.

The most recent paper was published in Conservation Letters in collaboration with scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences and the Hakai Institute. Led by CCIRA’s science coordinator, Alejandro Frid, the study sheds new light on how the design of marine protected areas (MPAs), can be optimized to help support the long-term recovery of at least 22 species of rockfish that live in nearshore waters of the Central Coast.

The study was conducted over hundreds of square kilometers and encompassed the territories of all of our Nations. Data from 254 sites was collected using SCUBA surveys and an underwater camera towed by a boat and lowered to depths of up to 200 metres (110 fathoms). In the following question and answer section, Alejandro tells us more about the study and the significance of the results.

Q&A with CCIRA Science Coordinator, Alejandro Frid

What is the best way to help depleted rockfish populations recover?

“We have to simultaneously shelter them from overfishing while also protecting high-quality habitats that sustain the greatest diversity of rockfish species. In a practical sense, that requires us to identify what those habitats are and where they are located. After that, we can prioritize those areas for protection by the network of Marine Protected Areas currently being planned for the Northern Shelf Bioregion, which includes the Central Coast. Outside of protected areas we need to manage commercial and recreational fisheries more conservatively so that the largest and oldest rockfishes—which produce the most young—are not depleted.”

What were the original objectives of your study?

“Previous research by CCIRA and others has already shown that marine protected areas are an effective way to protect rockfish populations from over-exploitation. In this study, we set out to answer the question of what specific habitat types sustain the greatest number of rockfish species.”

What did you discover?

“We found that the most structurally complex rocky reefs—those containing more crevices in bedrock and large boulders mixed with smaller rock particles—supported the most rockfish species. We also discovered specific areas that sustain a particularly high diversity of rockfish. Lastly, at some sites we encountered substantial concentrations of deep water corals and glass sponges, which have inherent biological value in marine ecosystems, and also provide habitat for rockfish and other marine life.”

Why is this study and its results significant?

“All four Central Coast First Nations have co-led and conducted this research. They are also governance partners in the Canada-British Columbia Marine Protected Areas Network Strategy process, which aims to create a network of MPA’s in British Columbia by 2020. That means that First Nations are not only leading essential technical work, but—after being left out of resource management decisions since colonization—they are starting to regain control over the long-term management of marine resources in their territories.

The information about habitat from our study comes at a time when it can specifically help strengthen the design of the MPA network with respect to rockfish. This is important because rockfishes are a diverse group of species that play important ecological roles in the marine environment and are also culturally and economically important to First Nations.”

Where is this work heading in the future?

“For us, the long-term recovery of rockfish populations on the Central Coast is intertwined with the rights and cultures of local First Nations. We’d like to see the Nations continue to assert their position as the stewards of this coast, using science and traditional knowledge to guide their management decisions.  Ultimately, we’d like to see the Nations and the marine environment thriving here; we’d like to do our best to ensure that future generations will be able to catch a lot of big healthy rockfish, like the ones in Frank’s stories.”

 

Featured image: a researcher using SCUBA gear swims through a large school of subadult Widow Rockfish on the Central Coast of British Columbia. Photo by Alejandro Frid

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