Rock On: The Oregon Rockfish

After a stretch at sea fishing for rockfish, the trawler Ms. Julie arrives at port, where its catch is unloaded.
After a stretch at sea fishing for rockfish, the trawler Ms. Julie arrives at port, where its catch is unloaded.

Rockfish rebound in Oregon’s waters, and one man’s catch is another one’s delight

written by Sophia McDonald
photography by Jon Christopher Meyers

In 2000, the waters off the Oregon coast had been so severely overfished that it was declared a federal disaster zone. Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service predicted that even if drastic action was taken, commercial fishing would not rebound in the area until at least 2030.

It turned out they were sorely mistaken. In 2011, trawl fisherman catching rockfish and other species landed 3.5 million pounds of their scaly, slippery prey. In 2018, they netted 25.3 million pounds. In 2019, the number was closer to 25 million, according to Yelena Nowak, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission.

Rex Leach of Coos Bay, who has been a commercial fisherman since 1978, was on the Oregon Trawl Commission when regulations to restore the fishery were enacted. He and many others opposed the restrictions at first. “We thought we were going to starve,” he said.

He lost that battle, but “thank heavens we did,” he said. “It saved our fishery. Otherwise, we would be out of business.”

Rex Leach with his boat the Ms. Julie.
Rex Leach with his boat the Ms. Julie.

Today, he’s a strong advocate for those regulations and the ones that remain. “We want a healthy ocean for our kids. We want it to be sustainable for them in the future.” Instead of a disaster zone, his hunting grounds are now a place where he can see his two sons working for the rest of their lives.

Leach got his introduction to fishing as a child, by crabbing with his father and grandfather. As he got older, he was drawn to the profession by the idea that he could fish part of the year and make enough money to do what he wanted for the rest of the year. He started with one boat, the Ms. Julie, and eventually added the Texas Lady and Cap Elza to his small fleet.

With a vessel of his size, it would be hard to earn a living fishing for salmon, which is seasonal. Rockfish, however, can be fished year-round, and proved to be a much more lucrative catch. “I can catch 10,000 pounds of rockfish in 20 to 30 minutes if they’re schooled up in a spot,” said Leach. “And you can go back to that spot four or five day later and they’re still there.” Although it’s more typical for a fishing trip to last two days, he can bring home an impressive haul in that time.

Freshly caught rockfish, ready to be filleted and processed.
Freshly caught rockfish, ready to be filleted and processed.

Oregon’s coastal waters are rich with twenty-five different species of rockfish, including black, vermillion, canary and yelloweye, which has been the slowest species to rebound. They are distinguished by their color and where they live. As the names imply, nearshore-slope or shelf rockfish live in shallow water near land, while midwater and deep-water rockfish thrive farther out in the ocean.

Leach catches rockfish with trawl nets, massive fiber webs with a set of steel doors that sink to the bottom of the ocean. The doors open at a 45-degree angle to allow fish in. As the nets drift along, rockfish will swim in but not back out. (They don’t tend to paddle against the current, he said.) Once nets are winched back to the boat, the steel doors open and the fish drop into the iced hull for storage.

Leach’s job isn’t as simple as motoring into the ocean and dropping a net, though. Due to the regulations from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates American fisheries, every boat must pay nearly $600 a day for a government employee to accompany them on a trip and monitor their activities. Monitors make sure that fishermen aren’t engaging in illegal practices such as killing fish and throwing them overboard because they aren’t the right species, something that used to be common. The number of fishing trips and the amount each fisherman can catch per year is limited to prevent overharvesting.

Fishermen and deckhands unload the Ms. Julie after three days of fishing off the Oregon Coast.
Fishermen and deckhands unload the Ms. Julie after three days of fishing off the Oregon Coast.

Back on shore, the fish are processed for sale—fresh if possible, because it fetches more money, but frozen if it can’t be sold in time. When the fishery shut down in the aughts, cheaper choices such as tilapia and catfish swooped in and took over. When rockfish reentered the market, it had to undercut those prices to compete, Leach noted. But as people learn more about the quality of this simple but delicious white fish, prices, like its population, rise. That’s one more reason he’s grateful to be in this business.

As the focal point of a meal, rockfish is a versatile ingredient available fresh or frozen year-round. Perhaps the simplest way to prepare it is to seal it in parchment with vegetables and herbs, and bake it. It’s easy, and instructions come courtesy of Kyle Chriestenson, chef de cuisine at Red Hills Kitchen in Mc-Minnville (see pg. 41).

So for a tempting Tuesday taco night, think grilled rockfish tacos with melon salsa, a recipe from Erik Englund, owner of Flying Fish in Portland.

For a taste of Vietnam instead, coat rockfish in sesame seeds and serve it in a bahn mi sandwich. The recipe for this crunchy, satisfying creation is on pg. 40, straight from the kitchen of Aar-on Bedard, chef at the Stephanie Inn in Cannon Beach, where the rockfish swim.

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