Meet Puget Sound’s latest endangered species… Feds relent and protect local rockfish

SEATTLE POST GLOBE

Years of badgering the federal government to take steps to save Puget Sound rockfish from extinction have paid off for retired fish biologist Sam Wright.

The National Marine Fisheries Service today announced that it will do what Wright suggested: It will protect three populations of local rockfish from Puget Sound and connected inland marine  waters under the Endangered Species Act.

Canary and yelloweye rockfish now are deemed “threatened” and a third rockfish species – bocaccio – is now legally considered “endangered.” An endangered species is at high risk of extinction; a threatened species is vulnerable to extinction in the near future and in need of protection.

The fish have been caught at high levels, depleting their numbers. They’re often caught unintentionally by fishermen targeting other species, according to the Fisheries Service, and they’re hampered by environmental factors, such as degradation of their habitat near shore, pollution and lost fishing gear that continues to snare fish.

It’s just the latest feat for Wright. While other retirees spend major hours playing golf or the like, Wright has devoted a big chunk of his golden years trying to save fish from extinction.

He’s the guy who petitioned the government to protect Puget Sound steelhead — and was successful. Ditto for Puget Sound chinook.

Puget Sound is home to 14 species of rockfish, only five of which are found in abundance, Wright has said. That leaves nine species doing poorly in his eyes.

Rockfish – a long-lived, bottom-dwelling fish — mature and reproduce slowly, making them vulnerable to overfishing, according to the fisheries service.

No one knows how many rockfish exist. In Wright’s written request to the government (http://is.gd/ub7I ), he stated that at least 50,000 bocaccio, 15,608 canary rockfish and 8,761 yelloweye rockfish were caught during a 12-year period of 1975 to 1986. But he added that a state fish biologist since told the federal agency he has seen zero bococcio in the last two decades and the other two species have virtually disappeared.

“A fish population decline from 50,000 to zero should have been more than adequate proof of a legitimate problem,” Wright said.

Wright also hoped to secure protections to greenstriped and redstriped rockfish, but agency scientists said they’re at “low risk” of extinction.

Orcas remain the most famous critters protected under the Endangered Species Act. Chinook salmon, chum salmon, steelhead and bull trout also already are protected in Puget Sound under the act.

“The real critical problem for rockfish is they have very small home ranges, and most of these nine species have home ranges like 30- and 40-foot in diameter,” Wright told the PostGlobe after he filed his petition last year. “So what happens when you get to be in very low abundance is you can’t find mates for your own species. So, there’s no chance for reproduction when you can’t find a mate.”

“I’ve worked on these things for 45 years, and when I see something that’s obviously wrong to me, I’ve got to correct it. Really, as a private individual, really the only mechanism that you’ve got is the Endangered Species Act. That’s the only way you can actually make a difference,” Wright told the PostGlobe last year after he filed his petition. Sitting on advisory committees doesn’t do it. “I’ve been part of them for 45 years, and I haven’t accomplished anything that route.”

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Filed under animals, biodiversity, conservation, endangered, environment, environmentalism, extinction, nature, wildlife, zoology

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