A descending device attached to a downrigger prepares to safely lower this rockfish back to the proper depth. Photo by Larry Phillips.

Halibut and lingcod fishing seasons begin in early May, anglers are reminded about having a required descending device on board their vessel


Spring is a busy time for recreational bottomfish fishing throughout Washington’s marine areas.

As fishing seasons get underway for coastal halibut on May 2 and Puget Sound lingcod on May 1, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) would like to remind anglers that a descending device must be on board vessels and rigged for immediate use when fishing for or possessing bottomfish and halibut.

“The use of descending devices to release rockfish that can’t be kept is an effective way to improve their survival,” said Lorna Wargo, WDFW intergovernmental ocean policy coordinator. “We’ve been pleased at the way anglers have adopted the regular use of descending devices to release rockfish as a responsible fishing practice.”

Washington’s marine waterways are home to many species of rockfish and while some populations are healthy, others are struggling and listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Puget Sound and off the coast, WDFW has also implemented recreational depth restrictions and fishing closure areas to reduce the potential to encounter rockfish species of concern.

Coastal anglers are reminded that possession of copper rockfish, quillback rockfish, and vermilion rockfish is prohibited in May, June, and July, when peak effort for bottomfish occurs. This restriction is intended to reduce catch to stay within state specific federal harvest limits. Recent scientific assessments for the three rockfish species indicate populations are likely healthy but smaller than previously understood.

Allowing possession and retention in coastal waters of these three rockfish species during March, August, September, and October supports collection of crucial biological information such as length and age which are important for future scientific assessments. Yelloweye rockfish retention is prohibited in all areas of Washington and yelloweye rockfish must be released.

In the Puget Sound, it is unlawful for recreational anglers to fish for, retain, or possess rockfish in Marine Areas 6 through 13, and fishing for bottomfish is prohibited (excluding Pacific halibut) in waters deeper than 120 feet to protect deeper-water ESA-listed rockfish.

Anglers should check the regulations or Fish Washington mobile app for the marine area where they will be halibut fishing, as marine areas 5, 6, and 7 only allow retention of Pacific cod and sablefish caught in waters deeper than 120 feet while halibut fishing, as long as they are within the bottomfish daily limit.

In Marine Area 5 (Sekiu and Pillar Point), lingcod may be retained from May 1 through June 15, 2024, only if caught in waters deeper than 120 feet while halibut fishing as long as they are within the lingcod slot size and daily limits.

Anglers are reminded that halibut fishing is closed to protect endangered and threatened rockfish species in Marine Areas 11, 12, and 13.

All of Marine Area 12 is closed to fishing for, retaining, or possessing all bottomfish, except for flounder, sole and sanddabs, which are open year-round north of a true east line from the mouth of Turner Creek to the Toandos Peninsula in waters shallower than 120 feet, and a descending device is required on board vessels.

Anglers can read more about rockfish identification and retention rules in this earlier WDFW blog post.

A printable rockfish identification guide is also available online at: wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/bottomfish/rockfish.

Recreational anglers can do their part to help conserve rockfish populations by following a few guidelines:

· Avoid rockfish habitat — When targeting non-rockfish species, avoid areas that are known to attract rockfish, such as pinnacles, boulders, and other structurally complex habitats. If a rockfish has been unintentionally caught in an area you are fishing, move to a different area. The best protection is always avoidance.

· Limit rockfish releases — When legally harvesting rockfish as part of your total allowable bottomfish take, target non-rockfish species first. This will enable you to retain any legally harvested rockfish caught incidentally while targeting other species and will reduce the number of rockfish released.

· Use release-friendly tackle — When fishing with bait, use a single circle hook. Circle hooks are less likely to cause injury by being deeply swallowed, increasing the chances of survival for released fish.

Why release a rockfish?

Barotrauma is physical damage to body tissues caused by changes in air pressure and affects rockfish caught in deep water and brought to the surface. Rapid ascent through the water column expands the gases in the swim bladder. Fish that are caught then released with inflated swim bladders cannot descend through the water column and typically float around until they die or are consumed by predators or scavengers.

Survival from injuries caused by barotrauma can be greatly improved by returning rockfish to the depth of capture before release. Rockfish caught in less than 60 feet of water are quite often able to submerge on their own. However, regardless of the depth of capture, if the fish appears to be unable to descend or exhibits obvious outward signs of barotrauma (e.g., stomach is distended from mouth, bulging eyes), here are some tips to increase survival:

· Use a descending device — Return the fish to the depth of capture or at least 60 feet, to ensure complete recompression.

· Avoid rough handling — Avoid dropping the fish and touching it as little as possible while also using a wet towel or wet hands. This will help to reduce removal of the fish’s protective slime coat.

· Do not vent — Puncturing the fish’s stomach, swim bladder or other bulging organs isn’t recommended and can cause serious injury or introduce infection. This practice can lead to death.

· Limit surface time — Rockfish survival is known to be related to time spent on the surface and survival increases as surface time decreases. With practice, rockfish can be released very rapidly, often in less than two minutes after reaching the surface.

More information on the effectiveness of descending devices is available on this NOAA Fisheries webpage.

Proper descending devices

A variety of descending devices, or recompression tools, are available at retail tackle shops and outdoor stores. Anglers can also make their own descending devices out of a simple weighted hook or a weighted, inverted milk crate. The goal of all such devices, whether they are “lip clippers,” weighted hooks, or “drop baskets” is to quickly and safely return the fish to capture depth, thus minimizing both short-term and long-term damage to tissues and organs.

Here are some tips and requirements:

· The device should weigh at least 3 pounds or be of sufficient weight to quickly submerge a large rockfish.

· A requirement is to have your descending device assembled and ready to use before you start fishing. Fish returned to depth within two minutes are known to have a much better chance of survival. The chance of survival for some species is known to decrease by half for every 10 minutes the fish is out of the water.

· Consider dedicating an old rod and reel or downrigger with a descending device attached to minimize time out of the water.

Release technique using a weighted hook:

· After bringing the fish to the surface and unhooking it, hook the weighted barbless hook downward through soft tissue on the lower jaw.

· While keeping tension on the line and holding the weighted hook, lower the fish over the side of the boat and swing the fish slightly to one side, then let go of the weighted hook. Let line out as the weight pulls the fish back to the bottom.

· Once back at depth, release the fish with a sharp jerk on the line.

· If the fish does not remain submerged after being released from the descending device, attempt to descend the fish again.

If you are unable to dedicate an old rod to use for releasing rockfish note that, with a little creative rigging, it is possible to place a weighted hook six to eight feet above your terminal tackle. This allows you to release a captured rockfish following the instructions above, then continue fishing without having to retrieve your gear.

Release techniques using a weighted inverted milk crate:

· After bringing the fish to the surface and unhooking it, place the fish at the surface of the water and capture it under a weighted milk crate attached to a line.

· With the weight suspended from the bottom (open side) of the crate, rapidly lower the fish to the desired depth.

· After reaching the desired depth, rapidly retrieve the milk crate.

· If the fish does not remain submerged after being released from the descending device, attempt to descend the fish again.

WDFW produced a brochure illustrating best practices for improving the survival of released rockfish. Click on this link to find the rockfish species identification one-pager. WDFW has a YouTube video describing the use of various descending devices.

Anglers should check the WDFW website to ensure a specific area is open prior to fishing. Refer to the WDFW bottomfish and halibut webpage for information on recreational bottomfish and halibut regulations and seasons for the coast and Puget Sound. WDFW developed the Puget Sound Rockfish Conservation Plan to protect rockfish populations. Refer to marine area rules and definitions in the Washington Sport Fishing Rules.

WDFW staff descending a rockfish during a test fishery.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.