All The Fish

Rockfish: Things Worth Knowing

Conversation with Fishery Biologist Brittany Blain

woman holds a large yelloweye rockfish on a boat
woman holds a large yelloweye rockfish on a boat
Brittany with a 22 pound Yelloweye Rockfish (Sebastes ruberrimus). 📷 Courtesy Brittany Blain

Why are they called “rockfish”?

Rockfish are in the Sebastes family and there are over 30 different species in Alaska’s waters. They tend to like rocks!

man holding a black rockfish on a boat
Black Rockfish, Resurrection Bay. 📷 Katrina Liebich

What’s the difference between pelagic and nonpelagic rockfish?

Pelagic typically means relating to the open sea. Pelagic species—like Black Rockfish — are typically your mid-water schooling species group. They’re found throughout the water column, typically close to rocky structures, but can also be found up at the surface. They tend to congregate more than nonpelagics and aren’t usually as big. Their lifespan is long (7-30 years old on average), but not as long as the nonpelagics.

man holding a black rockfish by the ocean
Black Rockfish are a commonly-caught pelagic species in Alaska. 📷 Courtesy Brittany Blain
From top left clockwise: Widow, Yellowtail, Dark and Dusky Rockfish. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game
man holding a spiky rockfish on a boat
Quillback Rockfish are a common nonpelagic species. They have a mottled brown and yellow body and high dorsal fin with prominent spines. Here’s one from Prince William Sound. 📷 Katrina Liebich

“The oldest documented Yelloweye was, I think, close to 120 years old.”

Common non-pelagics include Yelloweye, Quillbacks, Copper, Silvergray, China, and Tiger Rockfish:

From left: China, Silvergray, and Copper Rockfish. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
young girl holding a striped orange rockfish with her baby brother and dad
man holding a striped orange rockfish on a boat
Tiger Rockfish from Prince William Sound. 📷 Katrina Liebich
woman with a kid and 2 rockfish
A Yelloweye and Silvergray Rockfish from Prince William Sound. 📷 Trent Liebich
woman with a kid and juvenile yelloweye on a boat
Brittany and helper with a Yelloweye (note the white stripe typical of juveniles). 📷 Courtesy Brittany Blain

Barotrauma

Rockfish have a “closed” swim bladder that can’t vent. As they’re brought to the surface from deep water, the water pressure decreases and the air in their swim bladder expands and can’t escape. Injuries caused by bringing rockfish up from deep water are collectively called barotrauma.

“Sometimes their stomach pops out of the mouth, their eyes bulge out…If it’s a gravid female, you’ll see eggs coming out. All of these injuries—it’s called barotrauma.”

A swim bladder is a special organ that most fishes have that allows them to stay neutrally buoyant in the water column.

Deepwater Release

Since 2020, all vessels sport fishing in the saltwaters of Alaska must have a functioning deepwater release mechanism on board, and all rockfish not harvested must be released at depth of capture, or at a depth of 100 feet.

Brittany demonstrates a deepwater release on a Silvergray Rockfish with barotrauma.
a hook with a weight, no barb, and a line on the bend
A modified jig like this with the barb filed off can be used to send a rockfish back down to the bottom. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game
looking into a yelloweye’s mouth with a deep water release mechanism attached to it’s lower jaw
A Yelloweye with barotrauma is readied for deepwater release using a Seaquilizer. 📷 Alaska Department of Fish and Game

What are some fishing tips for catching rockfish?

There’s a good chance you’re going to catch a rockfish while targeting halibut and lingcod. Technique-wise, you’re going to be jigging.

happy kid with a black rockfish
crying kid looking at a lingcod
Black Rockfish and Lingcod. 📷 Katrina Liebich
Shrimp fly. 📷 ADF&G/Ryan Ragan

So you just using super heavy sinking line for the shrimp fly? Are you actually using a fly rod?

I’m not using a fly rod but you can when the Black Rockfish are on the surface. The shrimp fly is just a little hook with a little bit of material on it. And it’s just coming off a loop off the side of your main line.

What about gear entanglement around the rocks?

When I’m jigging, if I start to feel I’m coming up on something, reel up a little bit to stay off the bottom. I like to use a heavy, braided line. I can move the boat around a little bit and try and get the gear back. It’s just the risk you take fishing around rocky areas. You will occasionally get snagged and lose gear.

a bowl of mac n cheese with a rockfish fillet and mountains in the background
a bowl of mac n cheese with a rockfish fillet and mountains in the background
A fresh rockfish fillet in mac n cheese is a great on-boat meal. 📷 Katrina Liebich

Eating Rockfish

I’m a very partial to rock fish tacos. Having kids, I also like to make little nuggets. I like to eat them fresh, or as soon as possible, because they don’t freeze nearly as well as halibut and lingcod. You can also cook the fish whole with some limes and cilantro and sesame oil and stuff and bake it in the oven. Then you’re getting as much meat as you possibly can off the fish.

Safety Tip

Always wear a life jacket when you’re fishing on open water regardless of your swimming abilities. Many marinas and boat launches have jackets that are free to borrow. Alaska law requires any child under 13 years old to wear a U.S. Coast Guard–approved personal floatation device at all times while on the deck of a vessel or in an open vessel.

Additional Reading & Watching

Rockfish Conservation and Deepwater Release (ADF&G)

Stories from Alaska by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service