Rockfish study adds local ecological knowledge to inform fisheries management

Over 35 species of rockfish live in the waters off the coast of Alaska. Rockfish have been harvested for subsistence for thousands of years, and commercially and recreationally fished since the early 1800s.

Because rockfish are slow to reproduce, they are vulnerable to overfishing and require sound management to keep populations healthy. Some rockfish populations have declined in the Gulf of Alaska, resulting in fishery closures in some areas. With increased commercial and sport fishing of nearshore rockfish, managers in Alaska need more information about their size, distribution and relative abundance to better inform management decisions.

Young man wearing red fishing safety gear holds orange fish and smiles at camera
Jesse Gordon holds a vermillion rockfish. Photo by Anne Beaudreau.

Alaska Sea Grant researchers Jesse Gordon and Anne Beaudreau are working to shed more light on nearshore rockfish fisheries and how they have changed over the past 50 years. In particular, their work is demonstrating how local ecological knowledge has the potential to augment scientific knowledge, improving the information we have about rockfish and how we manage them.

“Fishermen have long-term, place-based knowledge,” Gordon said. “They are uniquely positioned to respond quickly to environmental change, which is why it’s critical to include their observations and leadership in rockfish management.”

The research team at the University of Alaska Fairbanks conducted more than 40 interviews with fishermen in Kodiak and Sitka. They spoke with fishery managers, commercial fishermen and sport fishermen about their perceptions of abundance changes for commonly harvested species of rockfish. The interviews also gathered information about fishermen’s perceptions of management and how to improve it, and actions that fishermen are taking to promote stewardship of rockfish fisheries.

The interviews revealed agreement that sport fishing has increased. However, perceptions of rockfish abundance differed, particularly between those interviewed in Sitka and in Kodiak. Some fishers reported little change, while others saw some decrease in the numbers of rockfish. Gordon and Beaudreau described these differing observations as arising from a combination of localized differences in rockfish abundance between areas and fishermen’s individual experiences on the water. Perceptions can be influenced by years of experience, gear type, and fishing locations.

Three dark colored fish underwater
Black rockfish. Photo by Kip Evans, NOAA.

The researchers analyzed fishermen’s knowledge from interviews, and harvest data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to examine long-term changes in rockfish populations and fisheries. Together these sources highlight geographic differences in rockfish fisheries and the importance of including diverse perspectives in the assessment and management of rockfish.

“The differences we saw between Kodiak and Sitka illustrate the importance of recognizing the place-based context in which management decisions are made, so that the impacts on local people can be appropriately assessed,” said Beaudreau.

Rockfish haven’t received the same attention and funding for research and monitoring as salmon, and scientists don’t have as much data to provide to managers. For this reason, the researchers suggest taking a bottom-up local approach to management that involves fishermen and others contributing information and observations to provide a more complete picture of Alaska’s rockfish fisheries.