Do you ever stand on the shore or peer off the side of a boat and wonder what’s beneath the waves? If you’re close to an underwater rocky shelf, you could be looking down on a fish born decades before Elvis Presley’s birth. Rockfish are slow growing and long lived, with some living to be over 100 years old!

Photo: Katie Kushneryk

How Old is that Fish?

Some of the rockfish living today were around before the first electronic television was invented. Rockfish ages are estimated by looking at annual growth patterns on their inner ear bones (known as otoliths), kind of like using a tree’s growth rings.

Inner ear bones (otoliths) are used to age rockfish. Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Fish ageing lab

Key Players in Marine Ecosystems

There are at least 38 species of rockfish found off the coast of British Columbia, some of which are also referred to as rock cod and red snapper. Although they come in many colours and lengths, they all have large eyes and notable dorsal fins with pronounced spines that can be raised or flat along their backs. They play a key part of marine ecosystems as predators of small animals (think shrimp, crab and herring), and are prey for larger animals such as lingcod, sea lions and seabirds.

Rockfish come in many colours. Photos: Katie Kushneryk

Easy to Overfish

In the Southern Gulf Islands, recreational fishing for inshore rockfish is a common pastime. Inshore rockfish are defined by their habitat, living in rocky areas to a maximum of 200 m below the surface. They include quillback, yelloweye, black, copper, China and tiger rockfish, each of which have distinct markings and life cycles. High rates of fishing can be harmful to these species because they live long, grow and mature slowly, and have stationary lifestyles. Older, larger females produce far more offspring than young females, so leaving the largest rockfish to reproduce is extremely important.

Additionally, when rockfish are brought up too fast from the depths they live at, the rapid change in pressure can cause an injury known as barotrauma. When a rockfish goes through barotrauma, a gas-filled organ called a swim bladder expands rapidly, pushing out their eyes and stomach. If not reversed by immediately returning the rockfish to the depth it was pulled up from, the effects of barotrauma can be fatal. Therefore, catch and release can kill these fish as easily as the Billyclub.

Effects of barotrauma: Bulging eyes and protruding stomach. Photo: Marine Life Sanctuaries Society

Protected Places: Rockfish Conservation Areas

Quillback and yelloweye rockfish are classified as Species at Risk, due to low populations. To help recover these populations and prevent the further decline of rockfish stocks, a special type of Marine Protected Area was developed.

As of 2007, 164 Rockfish Conservation Areas were established in British Columbia’s waters. Within these designated areas, no hook and line fishing can occur, other than by Indigenous peoples in accordance with their right to fish. Additional regulations and Rockfish Conservation Area maps are posted on signs throughout the Southern Gulf Islands, and can be found on Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s website. One of these signs can be found at the Miners Bay dock on Mayne Island.

Rockfish Conservation Area sign at Miners Bay dock, Mayne Island.

Knowing the Boundaries

Mayne Island is sandwiched between three Rockfish Conservation Areas, as seen in the map below. Despite the creation of Rockfish Conservation Areas, the populations of certain species have continued to decline. This is due in part to illegal, but often accidental, recreational fishing in Rockfish Conservation Areas. Boundaries can be difficult to discern while on the water, but the free MyCatch mobile device app can use your device’s GPS to show you if you are in a Rockfish Conservation Area. Knowing the locations of Rockfish Conservation Areas and abiding by restrictions within them goes a long way towards protecting these incredibly long-lived fish.

Southern Gulf Island Rockfish Conservation Areas pictured in red. Photo: Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Back to Life: The Use of Descending Devices

Another way local rockfish populations can be protected by recreational fishers is through the use of descending devices. If a rockfish is accidentally caught outside of a Rockfish Conservation Area and is showing signs of barotrauma, a descending device can be used to return it to the depth it was pulled up from, reversing the effects of barotrauma. Examples of descending devices include pressure-release clamps, spring-loaded clamps, and barbless inverted weighted hooks. More information on barotrauma and the use of descending devices is provided by Rockfish Revival.

Rockfish Conservation in the Southern Gulf Islands

For updates on a local rockfish conservation initiative, check out the Galiano Conservancy Association’s Rockfish Conservation Project. Your help in protecting these amazing fish will contribute to healthy marine ecosystems into the future.

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