Thursday, November 20, 2014

Got Barotrauma? Watch This.

Barotrauma is what happens to deep water Puget Sound rockfish when are caught and brought to the surface: gases in their swim bladder expand causing their stomachs and eyes to bulge. So what? They’re endangered-- you’re not supposed to catch them. And throwing them back with barotrauma means they most likely will die. We don’t want them to die; we want them to recover from the brink of depletion.

To that end, the federal government last week laid another layer of long-overdue regulatory protection for three species of endangered Puget Sound rockfish — yelloweye, canary and boccacio— by designating about a thousand square miles of deep-water and nearshore habitat as habitat critical for their recovery. Thanks go to the Center For Biological Diversity for pushing the feds after the initial ESA designation in 2010.

According to the Center, 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. Those projects would require federal consultations and cannot be harmful to any habitat or life stage of the listed rockfish— deep water adult, larval dispersal in the Sound’s surface microlayer, young-of-the-year rearing in the nearshore. Much of the protected habitat overlaps critical habitats already designated for killer whale and salmon recovery; however, the protected habitats of the three rockfish are similar to other rockfish and protected them as well.

On the fishing and harvest side, the state’s conservation efforts have finally made it unlawful to fish for, retain or possess rockfish in all of Puget Sound and Hood Canal and westward to Low Point in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That’s great but hard to enforce when rockfish are caught as incidental catch while fishing for salmon and other bottomfish like lingcod and halibut— and suffer from barotrauma when brought to the surface.

There are instructions, advice and pictures on the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife site, Protecting Washington’s Rockfish describing fishing methods and equipment to reduce bycatch and death by barotrauma. ( “DO NOT VENT! Puncturing the fish’s stomach, swim bladder or other bulging organs is NOT recommended and can cause serious injury or introduce infection.  This practice can lead to death.”)

Isn’t it amazing how torturous solutions have to be to correct situations we humans create? Here’s Kevin Lollar’s news video from the other coast showing some devices that can save the lives of fish suffering from barotrauma. The simple art of saving fish  In a longer form, WDFW entertains with, Is Barotrauma Keeping You Up? Try Getting Down with Recompression!

(Disclosure: In an earlier life, I installed septic systems on marginal soil and caught many, many rockfish. I consider my current interest in sewage treatment and rockfish recovery small acts of penance.)

--Mike Sato


  1. You could "suit up" with Diver Laura and send us a report from the deep!

  2. Would love to-- just can't hold my breath that long...


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