Habitat Designation Proposed for Rockfish

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The National Marine Fisheries Service announced a proposal to designate 1700 square miles of critical habitat for three species of threatened or endangered rockfish in Puget Sound, just weeks after the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) filed a notice of intent to sue the agency for failing to protect the fishes’ habitat.
     The NMFS designated the Puget Sound distinct population segments (DPSs) of yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish as threatened, and the bocaccio rockfish DPS as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) more than three years ago, in April 2010. “While rockfish live from Baja California to Alaska, the currents in Puget Sound prevent dispersal, making Puget Sound populations distinct and significant,” the CBD noted in its press release.
     The NMFS did not designate critical habitat for the DPSs at the time of listing because the agency had insufficient information to identify the physical and biological features required for conservation, or to assess the “impacts of designation,” according to the action.
     Rockfish are colorful, large and long-lived fish that mature slowly. They were historically overfished and are still caught by fishermen targeting other fish. In addition, the fish often die from becoming entangled in abandoned fishing gear.
     “Even though thousands of nets, pots and traps were removed between 2002 and 2011, an estimated 1,000 nets remain in Puget Sound in shallow subtidal areas, including habitat for canary, bocaccio and yelloweye rockfish. These nets, not including nets in deepwater rockfish habitat, kill more than 16,000 fish every year, 10 percent of which are rockfish,” the CBD said.
     Because rockfish live long, up to a 100 years for some species, and are predators of smaller fish, accumulated toxicity from pollution is also a threat, along with development along the shoreline and pressure from nonnative species.
     Adult rockfish give birth to larval rockfish. The larvae, juvenile fish, and adult fish have different habitat requirements ranging from near-shore to deep water. In addition, the NMFS considered habitat requirements for reproduction, feeding and shelter from predation.
     The agency noted that the proposed designations almost completely overlap previous salmon, killer whale and green sturgeon critical habitat designations in Puget Sound, and estimated that the primary impacts of designation would be incremental costs for additional administrative analysis, impacts to national security and possible harm to working relationships with Indian tribes and landowners with conservation plans.
     In the agency’s supporting economic report, it was considered unlikely that there would be significant extra costs specific to rockfish because the protections already in place for other species’ habitat designations “have generally similar biological features,” according to the action.
     Because the U.S. Navy has restricted areas, operating areas, and danger zones within the five basins in Puget Sound, some of the potential habitat areas were excluded for national security reasons, as provided for in the ESA.
     Similarly, the agency excluded some tribal areas because “the Tribes are actively engaged in fisheries management, habitat management and Puget Sound ecosystem recovery programs that benefit listed rockfish,” the agency said.
     Comments on the proposed designation are due by Nov. 4, and written requests for public hearings are due by Sept. 20.

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