The Redfish Project


Meet Sebastes alutus, the focus of my next research project. Fishermen call them Pacific Ocean Perch, or POP.

If you wanted to meet one, you’d need to be in about 100 fathoms of water, somewhere along the edge of the continental shelf, somewhere between California and Alaska. The fish would be bright red, maybe 20 inches long, weighing around four pounds. And it might be 90 years old.

Sebastes alutus is just one of a very large number of Sebastes fish, found in the oceans around the world. They are one of the most significant fisheries established during the 1940s. As boats installed bigger engines, they could fish with larger, heavier nets, allowing them to explore the rocky slopes of the continental shelf for the first time. Scientists were reaping the benefits of expanded budgets, as government sought to find and exploit new fish stocks.

Redfish were found in many oceans, off Newfoundland and Labrador, off Iceland, and in the North and Barents Seas. And off the West Coast of the United States, where a small, very local, and fledgling trawl fishery was hoping the abundant catches would sustain their industry. There were lots of local rockfish species, dozens of different kinds, some found in shallow waters, but others in the deep.

Boats began delivering the bright red fish to the Yaquina Bay Fish Company in Newport in 1946. The company filleted the fish and sold them into the fresh fish market. Manager D. W. Turnacliff noted that the fish were similar to east coast perch and started to label them “ocean perch.” By 1955, boats were fishing for POP from northern California to the Queen Charlotte Islands, off British Columbia. (Alverson and Westrheim, 1961).

Things changed dramatically in 1960, when a fleet of Soviet and Japanese factory processing ships began appearing in the Gulf of Alaska. Several hundred feet long, capable of staying at sea for months at a time, the factory trawlers revolutionized fishing. Their large engines were capable of hauling nets that could fish on the sea floor, or roll over large piles of rock, where fish species aggregated. POP catches skyrocketed, reaching more than a billion pounds in the Gulf of Alaska in 1965, with a similar fishery peaking off British Columbia the next year.  By the late 1960s, the catches had dwindled and the fleets moved on to other stocks (Love 2002). For the last four decades, POP have been recognized as overfished. Stocks have not recovered.

Since fishermen first started to land Sebastes, scientists have tried to figure out how old the fish were. It was not an easy task. First of all, there are many, many Sebastes stocks, with very subtle differences. Some live in shallow water, but most live in the deep. At first, scientists thought the fish might be mature at four or five years of age, and live for about a decade. But the more they looked at the fish, the more complicated it got. Some fish were apparently older, maybe as much as 30 years old (Gunderson, 1976). Now, scientists believe POP live to be 90 and that some other rockfish species live for more than 200 years.

I’m interested in Redfish. It will be a way to look at the growth of the global fishing industry. It will be a way to look at the development of the science on ageing fish. It raises many questions about creating sustainable fisheries.  But it will also be a way to look at how national and international policies played out at the most local of levels, on the fish stocks living off Newport, Oregon.

This project is a return journey for me. During my years with The Oregonian, I wrote many stories about the economic benefits that would come with the development of the West Coast trawl fishery. Nobody was more surprised than I was in 1996, when scientists released new assessments that showed six commercially-important rockfish stocks were showing signs of decline. Two had been reduced to less than 10 percent of virgin biomass, triggering provisions of the Sustained Fisheries Act, which had just been passed by Congress. The Department of Commerce declared the fishery a disaster in 2000.

The groundfish collapse was one of the last stories I covered before heading off to the University of California, San Diego, to do my doctorate in history of science. I’d hoped to write my dissertation on the collapse of West Coast groundfish and California Sea Grant generously gave me three years of funding.

I ended up writing about an earlier period in Pacific fisheries history, the events leading up to 1958 (University of Chicago will be publishing the book next fall, it’s called All the Fish in the Sea).

It’s taken me a long time to get back to rockfish and the rise of fall of West Coast trawling. I’m really looking forward to finding out what happened.


First of all, I copied the picture from the world’s best book on rockfish, The Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific, by Milton S. Love, Mary Yoklavich, and Lyman Thorsteinson, University of California Press,  2002. The picture is from p. 125 and was taken by Robert Lauth.

1) Dayton Alverson and Sigurd J. Westrheim, “A review of the taxonomy and biology of Pacific Ocean Perch and its fishery,” Rapports et Process-Verbaux Des Reunions, Conseil Permanent International pour l’Exploration de la Mer, Vol. 150, 12-27.

2) Love et al, 74

3) Donald Gunderson, Population of Pacific Ocean Perch (Sebastes alutus) stocks in the Washington-Queen Charlotte Sound Region, and their response to fishing, Dissertation, University of Washington School of Fisheries, 1976.

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