Marine Reserves in Puget Sound and Washington

Sierra Club supports the effort to establish Marine Reserves in the coastal waters of Washington State.

The state of Washington is in a unique position with regard to its marine resources and especially its fish stocks. The problem is historical overfishing and nonselective bycatch. This has affected almost all of the salmon fisheries and groundfish which are fish occupying the bottom of marine waters - both in the open ocean and in the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound. Unfortunately, Puget Sound has the most endangered fishery stocks of any state or province in North America. Consequently, our fish stocks are reduced to 1.9% of historic levels. Rockfish, of which there are about 75 species endemic to Puget Sound, are the most affected since many of them have very long lives and are very slow to reproduce. They are also a large and quite tasty to eat. Some species will require 90 years to reestablish appropriate population levels with proper management by the state of Washington.

Concern over the plummeting marine fishery stocks, especially for rockfish prompted the Washington Department of Fisheries and Wildlife to start research on marine reserves. Eventually this effort evolved into the Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan for public outreach and public input into this problem. That evolved into the Rockfish Study Group and several public meetings and advisory groups working in combination with NOAA. The results of the Rockfish Study Group led to the creation of the Rockfish Work Group at NOAA. I was involved in all of these advisory groups.

The Rockfish Work Group consisted of selected and invited individuals from a broad base of interested organizations. Amongst others this included the Wild Fish Conservancy, Puget Sound Anglers, representatives from the Indian tribes, and several researchers from WDFW and NOAA and other interested parties like Nature Conservancy. Unfortunately, according to laws and regulations of the federal government, the creation of a network of marine reserves was driven primarily by threatened and endangered rockfish species. This included  Yelloweye rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus), canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger), and bocaccio (Sebastes paucispinis) of the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin. Population parameters and the genetics of these rockfish species plus other species of groundfish were used to determine the creation of a network of marine reserves.

Eventually, after considerable research by personnel at NOAA and WDFW, a summary and review were published. This included research with remotely operated vehicles, considerable habitat characterization and research into barotrauma. All things considered, fisheries groups, environmental groups and the fishing public have all stepped up to do what is necessary to protect and restore these rockfish. These marine reserves work in coordination with other Marine protected areas (MPAs) in Puget Sound and an extensive network of marine reserves created by Canada.

The successful restoration of rockfish is dependent on habitat protection, habitat restoration (like removing ghost gillnets), and proper regulatory management and research by the state. Now, we just need time and continued proper management to protect and restore our rockfish. Future recommendations by NOAA include; reduction of bycatch involving rockfish, the use of descenders to get rockfish back to the proper depth when caught by recreational fishermen, education and outreach to the fishing public, protection and restoration of nearshore habitats, continued research on rockfish species and especially their biology, continued surveys of populations and barotrauma surveys.

The marine reserve work by WDFW and NOAA was completed in 2016 and is subject to a five-year review which will happen in 2021.

Norman T. Baker, PhD