Fact Sheet: Groundfish

The fish

The Council’s Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) includes over 100 different species that, with a few exceptions, live on or near the bottom of the ocean. The FMP covers the following species:

  • Rockfish. All West Coast rockfish are included in the plan. This diverse group includes both commercially and recreationally important species such as widow, yellowtail, canary, blue, black, yelloweye, and vermilion rockfish, plus two species of thornyheads.
  • Flatfish. The plan covers 12 species of flatfish, including petrale sole, Dover sole, starry flounder, arrowtooth flounder, and Pacific sanddab.
  • Roundfish. The plan includes six species of roundfish: lingcod, cabezon, kelp greenling, Pacific cod, Pacific whiting (hake), and sablefish.
  • Sharks and skates: big skate, longnose skate, leopard shark, and spiny dogfish. 
  • Ecosystem component species. These species are not actively managed with annual catch limits, but they are monitored to ensure that harvest is not appreciably increasing. There are 12 ecosystem component species in the fishery management plan, including spotted ratfish, finescale codling, and all grenadier species that are endemic (unique to this area).

The fishery and gear

A spotted fish sitting on a rock
A lingcod

Many different types of gear are used to target the wide variety of groundfish managed by the Council. The dominant gears are trawl (net), longline, hook and line, and pots. The West Coast groundfish fishery is divided into five sectors:

  • Limited entry trawl. This sector is composed of fishermen with limited entry permits endorsed for trawl gear, including bottom and pelagic trawls. The limited entry program limits the number of vessels allowed to participate in this fishery. This sector uses a system of individual fishing quotas and harvest cooperatives.
  • Limited entry fixed gear. This sector includes harvesters with limited entry permits endorsed for line or pot/trap gears. This sector mainly targets sablefish, but may also target other groundfish species such as rockfish. Limited entry fixed gear permit holders with a sablefish endorsement may target sablefish during the primary season (April through October) to catch individual vessel limits of sablefish.
  • Open access. This sector of the groundfish fishery includes fishermen targeting groundfish without limited entry permits, and those who participate in non‐groundfish fisheries that incidentally catch groundfish.
  • Recreational. This sector includes anglers targeting groundfish species and others who target non‐groundfish species but who incidentally take groundfish under recreational gears and regulations. Each West Coast state manages its own recreational fisheries, but coordinates with the Council process.
  • Tribal. This sector is made up of tribal commercial fishers who have a federally recognized treaty right to fish for federally managed groundfish in their “usual and accustomed” fishing areas. These tribes, all located in Washington state, include the Quinault, Hoh, Quileute, and Makah. Formal allocations to these tribes exist for sablefish and Pacific whiting. Other groundfish species allocations for this sector are recommended in the Council biennial management process.

The management context

Groundfish are managed through a number of measures including harvest guidelines, quotas, trip and landing limits, area restrictions, seasonal closures, and gear restrictions. All sectors of the groundfish fishery are currently constrained by the need to rebuild groundfish species that are overfished and managed under rebuilding plans. Rebuilding plans specify the harvest control rules and target recovery years for these species. As of 2021, the only remaining species to rebuild is yelloweye rockfish. 

The Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan contains the rules for managing the groundfish fishery. It outlines the areas, species, regulations, and methods that the Council and the Federal government must follow to make changes to the fishery. The plan also creates guidelines for the biennial process of setting harvest levels. The three main processes used to regulate groundfish harvests are described below. Since these processes can take up to six months, they may be streamlined for some decisions.

The process for controversial or complex issues takes at least three Council meetings. Proposals for management measures may come from the public, from participating management agencies, from advisory groups, or from Council members. If the Council wants to pursue these proposals, it asks for other possible solutions to the problem being addressed and then directs the Groundfish Management Team (GMT), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and/or Council staff to prepare an analysis. At the next meeting when such a proposal is on the agenda, the Council reviews the analysis and chooses a range of alternatives and possibly a preliminary preferred alternative. The analysis is then made available for public review, and the Council makes a final decision at the next meeting the item is scheduled.

The biennial management process was implemented in 2003 through Amendment 17 to the groundfish FMP and is detailed in Council Operating Procedure 9. Under the biennial cycle, eligible management measures are implemented for a two‐year period and adjusted through routine inseason actions. Those management measures not eligible for implementation within the biennium can be considered for future action by the Council. Separate harvest specifications (overfishing limits [OFLs], acceptable biological catches [ABCs], and annual catch limits [ACLs]) are identified for actively managed stocks and stock complexes each year in the two‐year period. This cycle provides more time for the Council and NMFS to work on other critical groundfish issues, and more time for public comment. A multi-meeting process (typically September, November, April, and June) is used to decide biennial harvest specifications and management measures:

September (in odd years): the Council adopts final OFLs , final ABCs, and a range of ACLs for stocks where a change in the harvest control rules is contemplated. The Council provides initial guidance, including a range of new management measures for preliminary analysis.

November (in odd years): the Council chooses (for public review) preliminary preferred ACLs for stocks where a change in the harvest control rules is contemplated, and adopts a range of management measures for more detailed analysis.

April (in even years): the Council decides on final harvest levels, and chooses preliminary preferred management measures for public review.

June (in even years): the Council decides on final management measures.

The Council reviews management performance (i.e., fishing‐related mortality, including landings plus discard mortalities) and socioeconomic impacts relative to management objectives (e.g., rebuilding plans) during the two‐year management period in order to consider modifying harvest specifications and management measures in the next biennial management period. New assessment results are also considered when deciding biennial harvest specifications and management measures.

Pacific whiting are managed annually, with harvest levels set each year under the terms of the U.S.‐Canada Pacific Whiting Treaty.

After considering Council recommendations and public comments, NMFS publishes the adopted regulations, thereby putting them into effect. For non‐routine and annual management decisions, NMFS publishes a Federal Register notice and provides a public comment period before finalizing the recommendations. The Groundfish Management Team (GMT) is involved throughout the decision‐making process. The team is made up of staff from the three coastal state fishery management agencies (Washington, Oregon, and California), NMFS, and a representative for the tribes with a recognized treaty right to take federally-managed groundfish. Traditionally, the GMT monitors catch rates, recommends harvest regulations and annual limits, and analyzes the impacts of various management measures.

The GMT is composed of two representatives each from Washington, Oregon, and California fish and wildlife agencies, two representatives from the NMFS West Coast Regional office, three representatives from the NMFS Science Centers, and one tribal representative. GMT members perform analyses and make recommendations on proposed management measures, and present information to the Council, Groundfish Advisory Subpanel (GAP), and other Council advisory bodies.

The GAP advises the Council on policies and management decisions that affect the groundfish fishery and the public. The panel includes industry representatives of commercial and recreational groundfish sectors, a tribal representative, charterboat owners and operators, fishing organization representatives, processors, an environmental organization representative, and a public at‐large representative. Each major commercial and recreational gear group is represented. Meetings are held at most Council meetings. The GAP operates by consensus and through majority and minority position statements that are offered as advice to the Council.

GMT and GAP meetings are open to the public, and public comment is generally accepted during the meetings.

For more information, contact Jessi Doerpinghaus & Todd Phillips