Environmentalists Petition to List Pacific Red Snapper as Threatened Species

Endangered Species Act Protection Sought for Popular Seafood Dish

SAN FRANCISCO (January 25, 2001) - Environmental groups today petitioned the U.S. secretary of commerce to list a variety of Pacific red snapper as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. The fish -- called "bocaccio" by biologists and fishermen -- is one of several species of rockfish sold at fish markets and served at restaurants as Pacific red snapper. If listed, it could become the first commercial marine fish protected under the act.

Environmentalists say they petitioned to list the central/southern population of bocaccio -- which extends from Northern California to Mexico -- based on numerous studies documenting its decline. Bocaccio once was the dominant species of rockfish caught by trawl fishermen on the Pacific coast, but according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), its numbers have declined 98 percent since 1969. At the height of the fishery, nearly 7,000 metric tons of bocaccio were landed a year -- about 40 percent of the total rockfish catch. By 1998, the catch had dropped to 285 metric tons.

"The demise of bocaccio is a warning sign," said Karen Garrison, senior policy analyst with NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the environmental group that authored the petition. "Many other Pacific rockfish are also in deep decline, and unless significant changes are made, more petitions are sure to follow."

The bocaccio life cycle makes the fish particularly vulnerable. It is a long-lived species (individuals can live more than 40 years), which takes several years to reach sexual maturity, and it may produce young that survive into adulthood only once in a decade. Fishing pressure has been so intense, the petition suggests, that even following years with good survival rates, most young bocaccio are likely caught before they can reproduce. In addition, because they school with other more productive groundfish, bocaccio are often caught as bycatch in unrecorded numbers and tossed overboard dead.

"The severe decline in bocaccio off California clearly indicates that they face a very real threat of extinction," said Brendan Cummings, attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "If bocaccio are to survive and recover, urgent action is needed."

According to the petition, the principle cause of bocaccio’s decline is overfishing, with habitat degradation a likely contributing factor. In recent decades, fish-finding equipment has become highly accurate, nets have become stronger, and the gear has become more versatile. These and other innovations, together with more boats, an expanded fishing area and inadequate management, have resulted in severe overutilization of the fish.

The habitats of both young and adult bocaccio are also under pressure. The piers, rocky areas and kelp forests inhabited by young bocaccio are near the urbanized coast and are degraded by stormwater runoff, oil spills and other pollution. The deep waters favored by adult bocaccio have been altered by the repeated scraping of the ocean floor by heavy trawl nets and other bottom-fishing gear.

"Fishery managers have not yet addressed pressing problems like bycatch and habitat damage," said Mark Powell, Pacific fisheries program manager for the Center for Marine Conservation. "Our only hope of heading off more listing petitions is to improve the way we manage our fisheries."

"Many scientists believe that fully protected areas are needed to rebuild populations of rockfish and other species at risk of extinction," said Garrison. "We’re calling for the creation of marine reserves where fishing and other extractive activities are prohibited and pollution is minimized. These places would offer safe havens where big, prolific bocaccio and other rockfish could breed and spawn."

The petition was filed by NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Center for Marine Conservation. Under the Endangered Species Act, the secretary of commerce (acting through NMFS) must decide whether to list bocaccio as a threatened species within a year of the petition. If bocaccio are listed, it could result in a prohibition of the intentional harvest or sale of the species.