About six years for the stocks off Alaska and British Columbia. Three years for the stocks off Oregon and Washington. It was fast. And it set off a cascade of ecological changes that we still do not completely understand.
The Soviet factory fleets began fishing in Alaskan waters in 1959. Several hundred feet long, capable of staying at sea for months at a time, the factory trawlers revolutionized fishing. Their large engines hauled nets that could fish on the sea floor, or roll over large piles of rock, where fish species aggregated. Catches of rockfish skyrocketed, reaching more a billion pounds in the Gulf of Alaska in 1965. There was a similar catch off British Columbia a year later.
The factory processors headed south, off Washington and Oregon in 1966. They caught an estimated 35 million pounds in that first year, but the catches dropped quickly. The boom was almost over. The stocks were hit hard, and so were the local fishermen. Between 1967 and 1969, the catch per hour of fishing declined by 45 percent.
One of the first scientists to study the impact of fishing on these ocean stocks was a young graduate student from Montana, Donald Gunderson, who was working on his doctorate at the University of Washington’s School of Fisheries. In the dry language of academia, Gunderson wrote:
“The results of this analysis suggested that past levels of exploitation went far beyond those levels that could be sustained by Pacific ocean perch stocks on a long-term basis. It was concluded that future rates of exploitation should be regulated so that the annual catch never exceeds 10 percent of the mean stock biomass on hand during the year.”[i]
Thirty-five years later, Gunderson is retired and has written about rockfish in a considerably different way. In The Rockfish’s Warning, Gunderson explores evolutionary biology, fisheries science, and resource management. It’s a hopeful book, as he discusses successful management, especially of recreational trout fisheries in his native Montana. But his wider message is that we have “lost our sense of the earth’s sacredness in our hubris, plundering it as fast as possible.”
That’s what happened to West Coast rosefish. It was caught as fast as possible, sold for as little as possible, and neither scientists nor fishermen understood one critical fact about these deep-water fish: that they were old. And that it would take a very, very long time to rebuild the populations–if they can be rebuilt at all. Some 60 years later, there is some evidence of rebuilding in Alaska, and a couple of stronger year classes off Washington and Oregon.
That’s one of the things that makes rosefish interesting to study. It was far, far easier to catch the fish than it was to study them. The technology spread with astonishing rapidity, fueled by government money, all focused on worthy goals like stabilizing employment in coastal communities, providing a product for export, and using fish to solve the problems of world hunger and to defeat communism. Sounds silly? Well, it was the most important component of American fisheries policy during the Johnson Administration (I’ve got the documents, from the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin).
Government subsidies helped spread the technology and provide money to university researchers, who designed the nets, experimented with new species, and helped market the fish. It was all a great example of the post-war research and development, all geared at achieving a greater harvest from the sea. The part of it that turned out to be the most difficult was the biology of the fish themselves. How could such a medium-sized fish be so old? But scientists didn’t start to figure that out until the late 1970s, that took another two decades after the Russian factory fleets first started exterminating rosefish.
[i] Gunderson, Donald R. “Population Biology of Pacific Ocean Perch (Sebastes Alutus) Stocks in the Washington-Queen Charlotte Sound Region.” Dissertation, University of Washington, 1975.