LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The U.S. government is going ahead with sharply higher catch limits next year for West Coast groundfish, citing a rebound in bottom-dwelling stocks once so depleted by over-fishing that commercial harvests were virtually halted 20 years ago.
The surprisingly swift recovery of groundfish - a classification that includes dozens of species of rockfish, sole, flounder and sablefish - off the U.S. Pacific coast is testament to the success of drastic fishing restrictions imposed in 2000, officials said.
“The fish proved that, given the chance, they could come back in a big way,” said Barry Thom, West Coast fisheries chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The relaxed rules, proposed in September, were given final approval on Wednesday by the NOAA Fisheries agency and go into effect in January.
The dramatically higher quotas for several key species, including yelloweye rockfish, Pacific Ocean perch and bocaccio, are expected to boost fishing income by $60 million next year for coastal communities of California, Oregon and Washington state, NOAA said.
Higher limits for California scorpionfish, popular with sport anglers, will likewise help generate 200,000 additional recreational fishing trips each year in Southern California, according to the agency.
West Coast consumers could notice a difference, too, with a greater variety of regionally caught fish on the menus of restaurants and available in the seafood cases of their grocers, industry officials said.
But Pacific rockfish producers, for example, will have to reassert themselves in the market.
“Processors and distributors have lost a lot of shelf space to imported fish such as tilapia and swai over the past couple of decades,” said Susan Chambers, deputy director of the Seafood Processors Association.
Catch limits are not going up for all groundfish but higher quotas on some key species, such as yelloweye rockfish, will allow improved access to others.
This is because even those species that had remained relatively abundant, and less restricted, were still effectively off-limits to fishermen who wanted to avoid being penalized for unintentional “bycatch” of the overfished stocks.
With allowable catch numbers going up 140 percent for yelloweye rockfish and more than 10-fold for Pacific Ocean perch in 2019, fishermen will be at liberty to target other groundfish as well without fear of exceeding the limits.
The new regulations mark a major turnaround from the late 1990s, when a severe groundfish collapse attributed to excessive harvesting led to a government shutdown to allow depleted species to rebuild.
Catch limits have been gradually raised on some species since then, but last week’s action represents the steepest, most sweeping increases for the region in about two decades, officials said.
“This creates the opportunity to catch more, and different types of species,” said Jason Cope, a research biologist for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; editing by Bill Tarrant and Sonya Hepinstall