We are harvesting too many lingcod

Lingcod season opens Wednesday, July 1, and many of us are eagerly looking forward to it. After moving to Homer in 2002 and sampling our region’s rockfishing, I was absolutely amazed at the abundance and size of the lingcod we caught in the vicinity of Elizabeth, Perl and East Chugach islands. 

But since that time, most of us in the sportfishing fleet have witnessed a dramatic decline in both the numbers and size of the lingcod in that area. Ten years ago I would keep some of those trophy-sized lingcod, but I switched to catch-and-release lingcod fishing several years ago.

Statistics from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game show that the fishing pressure on lingcod in the Lower Cook Inlet Region increased considerably in 2007. From 2001 through 2006, the average yearly harvest of lingcod from the Lower Cook Inlet Region was 2,617 fish. From 2007 through 2012, the annual harvest doubled to 5,814.

Most sexually mature lingcod are not highly migratory. That makes them very susceptible to overfishing. Females grow much larger than males and most lingcod in south central Alaska that weigh more than 25 lbs and are longer than 43 inches are females. Females may began spawning at an age of seven years, and a length of about 33 inches, and they can spawn yearly until they reach the end of their maximum lifespan of about 29 years. At that point they might weigh 40-70 pounds.

Alaska regulations require that lingcod must be at least 35 inches in length before they can be kept. The result? In any given year, 67-80 percent of the lingcod harvested in our region are females. This also means that many of those females are removed from the population after only spawning once, rather than several years thereafter. This just does not make any sense to me. Oregon and Washington have actively rebuilt their lingcod stocks over the last couple decades. Their minimum size limit is 22 inches.

There is a puzzling disparity between the abundant reports from experienced people in our regional sportfishing fleet, who report a diminished quality of our lingcod fishing, and the data collected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 

Despite a doubling of the average annual harvest of lingcod since 2007, their statistics don’t show any change in the average size or age of the lingcod being harvested. Relying in part on that data, the Alaska Board of Fisheries rejected a 2013 proposal to decrease the daily bag limit from two fish down to one.

I do sincerely respect the Fish and Game Department’s serious, professional efforts to determine the health of our regional lingcod stocks. But I’m concerned that one model they are using may be overestimating the the amount of high quality or heavily used lingcod habitat in our region. 

Could it be that the sport fleet is fishing longer hours and traveling farther to catch their limit of lingcod, and that extra effort is why we haven’t seen a decrease in the size and age distribution in the lingcod harvest?

Our charter fleet can’t fish halibut on Thursdays this summer. Will they switch to rockfishing on Thursdays, and if so, how will it impact our lingcod?

We also don’t know if the widely reported decline in the quality of our lingcod fishing is partially a result of changing ocean conditions. Even if that is true, we don’t have any control over that phenomena. The only thing we can control is our harvest of lingcod.

Here’s my opinion: 1) We need to reduce the unacceptably high precentage of female lingcod being harvested; and 2) We also need to reduce the total number of harvested lingcod.

Here’s some suggestions. You may have better ones. Please, let’s hear from you:

1. Decrease the size restriction from 35 inches to about 28 inches to reduce the percentage of females being harvested.

2. Decrease the daily bag limit from two fish down to one. That would decrease the annual harvest by roughly 40 percent and result in a total harvest closer to the historical average that existed from 2001 through 2006.

3. Should we scrap the minimum size limit and have a maximum size limit? In our region, 85 percent of lingcod over 43 inches are females. If fish over that length were released, it wouldn’t take very long before there would be lots more of those very large fish out there. Fishermen would more frequently have the thrill of hooking, fighting and getting a close-up look at those great fish. How much is that worth to a visiting angler?

It takes time to change fishing regulations. It takes even longer to change sportsmen’s expectations and attitudes about fishing. Until we do, let’s voluntarily do our part to conserve our lingcod resource in the Lower Cook Inlet sportfishing district.

Ray Fowler has lived in Homer for the past 13 years and works as an anesthesiologist at South Peninsula Hospital. He writes that “he is an avid fisherman and goes fishing at every conceivable (and inconceivable) opportunity, and steadfastly avoids working in his wife’s garden or mowing the lawn.”