SEATTLE— The National Marine Fisheries Service today protected more than 1,000 square miles of habitat in Washington’s Puget Sound for endangered rockfish. Often brightly colored and capable of living longer than 100 years, rockfish have seen their populations badly depleted by decades of overfishing combined with habitat degradation. Maintaining and improving water quality, food resources and seafloor roughness are essential to recovering rockfish in Puget Sound, a fjord-like estuary covering 2,332 square miles.
“Saving rockfish from extinction requires protecting some of the most important places they live, and that’s exactly what’s happening now in the Puget Sound,” Catherine Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a notice of intent to sue over the overdue critical habitat designation last year. “These habitat protections will not only give rockfish a fighting chance at survival but will help all of the animals that live in these waters.”
Today’s announcement identifies 590 square miles of near-shore habitat for young rockfish and 414 square miles of deepwater habitat for yelloweye rockfish, canary rockfish and bocaccio. The habitat includes near-shore kelp forests for rearing juveniles and adjacent deeper waters used by adults for shelter, foraging and reproduction. The government significantly reduced the designation from the proposed rule to exclude land already managed by tribes for conservation and U.S. Department of Defense–controlled areas.
“The Puget Sound is part of a remarkable inland sea and fed by 14 major river systems. It’s home to endangered marine mammals and fish, making it all the more important to preserve,” Kilduff said. “Protecting this habitat from pollution, abandoned fishing gear and other threats will benefit the recovery of rockfish and even people who depend on these waters.”
The government analysis preceding this proposal was the first study to identify important rockfish habitat in Puget Sound. Government scientists now plan to prioritize surveys for rockfish and habitat and develop larval dispersal models in the draft rockfish recovery plan.
“Species with critical habitat protected are more than twice as likely to be recovering as those without,” Kilduff said. “That’s why this is such an important step.”
Rockfish, in part because of their long lifespan and territorial habits, face a multitude of habitat threats. The rule identifies activities that might affect critical habitat including near-shore development and in-water construction, dredging and material disposal, pollution and runoff, cable laying and hydrokinetic projects, kelp harvest, fisheries, and activities that lead to global climate change and acidification. Abandoned fishing nets — not including nets in deepwater rockfish habitat — kill more than 16,000 fish every year, 10 percent of which are rockfish.
In 2010 the National Marine Fisheries Service protected the Puget Sound/Georgia basin populations of yelloweye rockfish and canary rockfish as threatened, and bocaccio rockfish as endangered, under the Endangered Species Act.
The rockfish critical habitat designated today overlaps in part with existing critical habitat for salmon, killer whales, green sturgeon and bull trout.