Eating out tonight? The special on the dinner menu may have been born before Alaska became a state. Rockfish are commonly found along the North Pacific, from Alaska to California, as well as the South Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Known for its delicious taste, as demonstrated by its popularity on menus throughout the United States, it also serves as one of the longest living fish, with some individuals living in excess of 200 years.
Despite their long sea lives, rockfish usually average no more than 21 inches long. Most species are bottom dwellers, making their homes in kelp forests, sea cliffs, or rocky reefs at depths ranging from shallow waters to depths of more than 600 feet.
Although these highly colorful and diverse fish have the ability to live long lives, they are exceptionally vulnerable to overfishing for several reasons. Some species of rockfish, like the yelloweye, remain faithful to a specific site over the span of their long life, making them vulnerable to population depletion in certain areas. Rockfish do not begin reproducing until they are 7-20 years of age and once having reached reproducing maturity the fish only reproduce sporadically. Rockfish also rarely survive catch and release fishing as they have swim bladders, furthering their vulnerability to overfishing.
Rockfish, along with other fish such as cod, have an air-filled organ, called a swim bladder, which allows them to travel up and down the water column. When a fish is brought up from depths greater than 60 feet, the organs in the fish compress, causing the stomach to be pushed out their mouth. The fish is not dead, but has a low survival rate when thrown overboard, thanks to gulls and other predators.
Some rockfish, such as the bocaccio, canary, and the yelloweye rockfish, have already endured population declines that have put them on the endangered and threatened species lists by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The main reasons attributed to their declines are overfishing for commercial and recreational purposes, habitat degradation and declining water quality. However, with proper fishing methods and fishing regulations, rockfish populations could eventually reach sustainable populations again.
Heather Dalke was a summer education intern at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.