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Originally published Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 11:32 AM

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3 species of Puget Sound rockfish listed for protection

Three more Puget Sound marine creatures are now listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Seattle Times environment reporter

In hindsight it seems almost predictable.

After federal Judge George Boldt in his landmark decision in the 1970s awarded area tribes half the region's catch of salmon, state leaders sought to appease frustrated non-Indian anglers.

Fishermen looking to hook or net more fish were pushed toward Puget Sound's murky depths and a brightly colored family of bottom dwellers: rockfish.

Thirty-five years later three types of rockfish have slid so close to extinction that the government is protecting them under the Endangered Species Act.

The burnt-red yelloweye and goldfish-orange canary rockfish that roam the Georgia Basin and Puget Sound's icy deep were listed Tuesday as threatened species. The more drab, but rarer bocaccio was listed as endangered, meaning it could actually wink out soon for good.

The listings are another blow to the troubled waters of Puget Sound, already home to threatened orcas, chinook salmon, chum salmon and bull trout. And while no one disputes that overfishing caused the declines, pollution, excessive shoreline development and other environmental factors appear to be helping prevent a strong rebound.

Attempts to bring rockfish back may hit the fishing industry hardest. The state of Washington already has moved to scale back fishing to repair the damage. But officials concede more drastic fishing cuts may yet come, because it's too easy to accidentally catch rockfish, and that often leaves the newly protected species dead.

"We're just not ruling anything out right now," said Greg Bargmann, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Beginning next month, fishing is banned for all rockfish from southern Puget Sound to the Canadian border. And anglers seeking other species will no longer be allowed to fish in waters deeper than 120 feet. Rockfish have such large swim bladders that the fish essentially implode when hooked and brought up too fast from the deep.

In future years, biologists say, fishing of chinook, lingcod and halibut could also be restricted.

"We'll have to look at all methods to recover this species, and we're going to try to be conservative," said Dan Tonnes, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The declines highlight how quickly our knowledge of local marine life can change.

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Rockfish, shaped like monstrous footballs and speckled, spotted or streaked with color, inhabit rocky reefs well below 120 feet, but rear their young in kelp beds near the shore, where they feed on shrimp, herring and surf smelt. As recently as the 1980s, when seafood lovers pulled up line after line of these bright scaly fish to cook as rock cod, biologists didn't realize they reproduced at a glacial pace — more like people than fish. Rockfish can live 100 years and take 17 or more to reach sexual maturity.

"I liken it to logging," said Bargmann. "When you cut down a tree it takes a long time for another to take its place. We didn't appreciate that slow growth."

Tonnes added, "They were seemingly abundant, but by the time we had a good understanding of rockfish life history, many of them were gone."

The state started to make changes back in the early 1990s, and in a pristine environment rockfish might have begun faring better, but instead, "they hit rock bottom and seemed to stay there," said Phil Levin, another federal biologist.

There are multiple problems: Rockfish get tangled in derelict fishing nets and old crab pots that have been abandoned over decades on Puget Sound's seafloor. While contractors have recently been cleaning up this debris, most of that work has been focused in shallow waters. A recent survey has already found at least 32 decaying nets in waters below 100 feet.

The same salmon-intensive eelgrass beds that are often disrupted by shoreline development also are important for the small fish rockfish eat. In addition, because rockfish live so long, they're susceptible to pollutants that work their way up the food chain and ultimately change their body chemistry.

Biologists have even found male rockfish in Elliott Bay and Commencement Bay that produce female hormones and, sometimes, eggs.

"It's complicated," Levin said. "In some areas the problem is water quality, in some areas it's fishing, in some areas it's derelict fishing gear, and Hood Canal is a whole other story."

Low levels of dissolved oxygen in the southern end of Hood Canal frequently kills off fish, especially bottom dwellers.

Most biologists agree the long-term solution is establishing a system of marine reserves through Puget Sound that limits human activity.

In the meantime, federal officials will begin working soon on a recovery plan and are expected to release an analysis in a few weeks detailing conflicts between rockfish survival and summer salmon seasons. That document would lay the groundwork for any changes in fishing.

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com

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