Despite the closure of commercial fisheries in the 1990s, lingcod stocks have failed to rebound significantly in Howe Sound. Researchers and citizen scientists continue to monitor populations carefully through annual egg-mass surveys, but threats remain.
Author: Jeff Marliave and Laura Borden, Howe Sound Research Program, Coastal Ocean Research Institute
Reviewer: Scott Wallace, Ph.D., Research Scientist, David Suzuki Foundation
Banner Photo Credit: Jenn Burt
Lingcod stocks in Howe Sound remain low despite commercial and recreational fishing closures for the last decade or more. During the last century, lingcod biomass was drastically reduced due to commercial fishing. By the late 1980s, lingcod stocks in Howe Sound hit a low of 1 percent of original biomass. Commercial fishing closures were introduced in 1990, but lingcod abundance did not improve and in 1993 Porteau Cove and Whytecliff Park were designated as no-take closure areas under the Fisheries Act of Canada. An increase in the abundance of spawning lingcod was evident at the turn of the millennium, but levels were still far below those outside of Howe Sound. No discernable increase in large female spawners — typically the most successful spawners — has been evident since 1994. Today, recreational fishing presents the greatest threat to Howe Sound lingcod populations despite fishing closures, and poaching is a likely contributor to the lack of recovery of spawner abundance. Research has shown that larger lingcod populations occur along island shorelines that are accessible only by boat.
Why is it important?
Lingcod range from Northern California to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska and can be found throughout Howe Sound. They are typically found on rocky reefs between 10-100 meters deep, where crevices and large boulders provide ideal habitat for spawning during the winter. Lingcod are an important component of reef communities in Howe Sound. They act as a top-down control on mid-level predators such as rockfish and smaller greenlings, maintaining a balanced community structure. Lingcod consume a variety of smaller fish including herring and bottom-dwelling fish, while marine mammals are their main predator.
What is the current status?
Extensive commercial and recreational fishing pressures from the mid 1800s until the 1980s depleted lingcod stocks to a historic low. An annual lingcod spawning population survey — conducted in Howe Sound since 1994 — indicates a slow recovery may be taking place since the late 1990s based on diver surveys, with a notable increase in egg mass sightings in 2000 but no sustained increase since then (Figure 1). Abundance peaked in 2006 following a Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) enforcement campaign along the Sea-To-Sky corridor in 2005, which targeted illegal recreational fishing. Prior to 2014, DFO assessments of lingcod stocks have excluded management areas 28 and 29 (Howe Sound, Indian Arm and the adjacent nearshore waters of the Strait of Georgia) due to confusion with historical catch data. In scenarios where these areas were included in the 2014 assessment, increase of lingcod stock biomass compared to historical levels was lowest. However, in all scenarios of inclusion or exclusion of this region, spawning lingcod biomass was predicted with 100 percent certainty to be greater in 2014 than in 2006, when stocks were last assessed.
An annual lingcod egg mass survey runs each February-March and is organized by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s Howe Sound Research Program with help from divers up and down the coast of British Columbia. During the spawning survey, information about egg mass size is collected to provide clues about the age structure of the female population, as older lingcod produce larger egg masses. At five years of age females begin to produce watermelon-sized egg masses. The percentage of large egg masses has fluctuated over the years of the survey, and 2015 represents an average year with 47 percent of females aged five or older (Figure 1). In contrast, areas of Northeast Vancouver Island consistently record greater than 90 percent of egg masses as watermelon-sized.
What can you do?
Individual and Organization Actions
- Follow fishing closures for the recreational fishery and report any illegal fishing to 604-666-3500 (1-800-465-4336). Even if not involved in fishing, educate yourself on fishing practices so you are able to report poaching.
- Support the annual Lingcod Egg Mass Survey in February and March by spreading awareness and contributing dive surveys to the Vancouver Aquarium.
Government Action and Policy
- Increase public education and awareness surrounding the closures of commercial and recreational fisheries, and the status of Lingcod populations.
- Work with the Vancouver Aquarium to help encourage awareness of and participation in the annual Lingcod Egg Mass Survey.
- Designate more resources to effective monitoring and enforcement of fishing closures.
- Continue to include area 28 and 29 in ongoing assessments of lingcod stocks.