Understanding New Rockfish Regulations in California

Posted by Pitbull Tackle on Apr 7th 2023

Understanding New Rockfish Regulations in California

This year the State of California has introduced a brand-new fishery for sport fishermen by opening previously closed fishing areas of the ocean. For decades most of Northern California has restricted bottom fishing in depths greater than 300ft (50 fathoms). Starting in 2023 these regulations have changed, and previously untouched waters are now open for fishing. We are expecting to see some incredible rockfish being caught in the depths but with these new changes, fishermen have a lot of questions about venturing out to the deep water to go fishing. In this article we are going to cover some of the most frequently asked questions as we look forward towards the opener and we hope to help clarify the regulations for you this season. Please keep in mind that we are writing this article to be used as a guideline, not as the official regulations. We have done our best to include direct links to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) website as well as federal organizations such as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Always use information directly from the agency websites as they can make changes to the rules as the year goes on.

What is the difference for rockfishing this year compared to previous years?
This season the biggest changes will be depth restrictions and changes to the species you can keep. Generally speaking, the bottom fish season will be sub-divided where certain times of the year you can fish at certain depths and only target specific species. It is very important to keep in mind that California is divided into management zones and regulations can change once you cross over into different zones. DFW offers a “Sportfishing Regulation Map” which lets you click on a fishing zone and look over the regulations specific to that area. The new deep-water fishing offers a chance to catch some new species and fish different areas than in previous years and is an excellent opportunity for some of the best bottomfishing we have ever seen.

When is the season open?
This year the rockfish season opens sometime between April 1st and May 15th, the exact date varies depending on your management zone. Here is a link to a page which shows a list of bottomfish regulations by zone, you can look at the area you are interested in fishing and see exactly when it opens and what the regulations are.

What species can I keep?
This season the rockfish species have been organized into different subsets or groups. These groups are the “Nearshore Rockfish”, “Shelf Rockfish”, and “Slope Rockfish”. Anglers in the northern parts of the state are familiar with Nearshore Rockfish as those fish tend to be more common in shallower waters where the majority of rockfishing occurs. Fishermen in the southern areas of the state will be more familiar with the Shelf and Slope Rockfish species due to the type of deep-water rockfishing that usually occurs in the southern fisheries. Depending on your zone and the time of year certain species can be caught and others cannot. This is another situation where you must check your management zone regulations and see what species you can target, and which species are closed. There is also a list of rockfish species which are always illegal to keep, DFW has these species in a list on their website here.

Are all the regulations the same?
No, depending on your management zone you may have different regulations than the area just above or below you. For example, on May 15th, 2023 the rockfish season opens in the San Francisco Management Area, but fishing is only allowed for Shelf and Slope Rockfish. There is also a depth restriction for those rockfish as they can only be fished in depths of 300ft or greater for the beginning part of the fishing season (regulations change at a later date). The Central Management Area is the next zone south which has an opener of May 1st, 2023 and all three groups of rockfish can be harvested with no depth restrictions until the later part of the season when different depth and species restrictions are enforced. Generally speaking, management zones follow the same patterns where there are depth and species restrictions at different times of the year, but each zone has unique differences compared to each other. Check your regulations here for your zone and compare it to the other management areas.

What is a sub-bag limit?
A sub-bag limit is a term that is used when talking about how many fish you can keep of a certain species. The total limit for rockfish in California is 10 fish per angler. Of the 10 fish in a limit they can be a mixed bag of species or it can be all the same species. Some rockfish have sub-bag limits which means that within the 10 fish limit only a specific amount of certain species can be kept. The species to keep in mind are Vermillion (limit 4), Quillback (limit 1), and Copper Rockfish (limit 1) which all have sub-bag limits listed here on the DFW website. We have created an example scenario to help explain the sub-bag limits. Two fishermen make a trip to Fort Bragg, one plans on fishing offshore from a boat and the other plans on fishing closer to shore out of a kayak. The boat angler heads to deep-water and catches his ten fish. He keeps his sub-bag limit of four Vermillion Rockfish, one Copper Rockfish, and keeps another five rockfish of mixed species (three brown rockfish and two Blue Rockfish) for a total of ten rockfish. The kayak angler fishes close to shore and catches ten Black Rockfish with no other species caught that day. Both anglers have fished different areas and caught different species of fish, but both have caught legal limits as the offshore angler kept a legal sub-bag limit and the kayak angler kept a full limit of a rockfish species with no sub-bag limit.

Marine Protected Areas
These are geographic areas of the ocean which are closed to fishing no matter the depth. There is an interactive MPA map on the DFW website which shows the closed zones up and down our coast which will help make sure you are fishing in legal areas. NOAA also offers more detail on their website about what MPA’s are and how they are useful for our fishery, that information can be found here.

This season will be a learning process for almost everyone as the deep-water fishing has been closed for so many years. Safety is always the most important thing to keep in mind, especially when exploring new and unfamiliar areas. Fishing offshore is far different than nearshore. You will most likely need to travel farther away from shore to reach deeper water which leaves you, your boat, and your crew exposed to the weather. Conditions can change and when your boat is offshore there is no protection from the wind or swell. Being farther away from the harbor also means that it will take longer to drive back and forth to your fishing location. If you see the weather start to change do not hesitate to act quickly and make a safe decision to head back in since it will take you much longer than normal to drive back. Choosing calm ocean conditions is extremely important to keep you and your friends safe on the water. Research swell reports and forecasts in addition to wind forecasts. NOAA gives detailed marine forecasts for both inshore and offshore areas which can be found here. We recommend using multiple websites and forecasting tools to compare between them. If multiple sources are telling you consistent information, it is much more reliable then planning your day from one single forecast tool. Always choose caution and safety over everything else, there are plenty of fish to be caught and plenty of fishing days with flat-calm weather during a season.

Hopefully this overview on the new bottomfish regulations is helpful for fishermen looking to go offshore and try some deep-water rockfish. Click here to contact the California Department of Fish and Wildlife if you have further questions, official guidelines and restrictions will always be found on their website. If we can help answer anything feel free to go to our contact page on the website and send us an email.