Yelloweye Rockfish | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Yelloweye Rockfish

Sebastes ruberrimus

Also known as

Red snapper, Pacific red snapper, red rock cod, yellow belly

Distribution

Northeast Pacific

Ecosystem/Habitat

Rocky bottoms with complex structures

Feeding Habits

Active predator

Conservation Status

Special Concern

Taxonomy

Order Scorpaeniformes (scorpionfishes & flatheads), Family Sebastidae (rockfishes)

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Yelloweye rockfish get their name from their distinct yellow eyes and bright orange-red body. These rockfish are one of about 30 different species of rockfish found off the Pacific Coast of Canada, but they are among the longest-lived – living up to 115 years old! Their long lifespan means they are slow growing and mature late in life, making recovery for this species quite slow since the population growth rate is naturally so low. They can be found in the deep ocean and never stray too far from home – some rockfish have been known to spend their entire lives on a single rock pile!

As one of the larger species of rockfish, yelloweye can grow up to 90 centimetres long and weigh up to 11 kilograms, with females typically larger than males. They are a bright orange-red colour as adults, but juveniles are typically a darker red colour with two distinct white stripes that run across their bodies, parallel to their lateral line. Yelloweye are generally observed in rocky areas at depths from 30 to 230 metres. They are predators, feeding on other rockfish, sand lance, herring, juvenile groundfish and crustaceans.

Like all rockfish, yelloweye are slow growing, long-lived and late to mature, making their recovery from human impacts a slow process. Females do not reach maturity until they are between 16 and 20 years of age. Yelloweye rockfish are viviparous, meaning they give birth to live young or larvae. Mating typically takes place in November with females storing sperm for weeks before fertilizing their eggs. They produce a substantial amount of eggs annually – approximately 1.2 to 2.7 million. 

Gestation takes about one to two months, and live birth, known as parturition, occurs between April and September, peaking in spring between May and June. After the baby yelloweye are born, they don’t immediately head for the rocky bottom, but rather spend a few months living in the open ocean in their larval stage. Once they reach about 3 to 10 cm (6 to 9 months), they settle to the bottom habitats in shallow areas and move deeper as they age.

Yelloweye rockfish have been fished for decades, targeted by Indigenous, commercial and recreational fisheries. In Canada, yelloweye are split up into two distinct populations, or stocks. One lives in waters between the inner coast of Vancouver Island and the mainland and is referred to as the “inside” population. The other resides on the outside coast of Vancouver Island and is known as the “outside” population.

Yelloweye rockfish are caught by a variety of fishing gear types, including jig, troll, set-line and trawl. They are targeted by a number of fisheries, including the commercial mixed groundfish hook and line fishery, the recreational fishery and in Indigenous fisheries for food, social and ceremonial (FSC) purposes. They are also caught as bycatch in the commercial groundfish trawl, salmon troll, shrimp trawl and prawn trap fisheries. 

In the early 2000s, after significant reductions in both the inside and outside populations, conservation actions were taken, including reductions in the total allowable catch (TAC) for yelloweye by 50 per cent for the outside population and 75 per cent for the inside population. A network of Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCA) were also established to protect rockfish habitat, closed to all commercial and recreational fishing. Since then, neither population has recovered. Recently, the yelloweye rockfish outside (2016) and inside populations (2018) finally received rebuilding plans to help them rebound.

The life history of yelloweye rockfish make them particularly susceptible to mortality caused by human activities such as fishing. Fishing is the most significant threat to yelloweye, including both commercial and recreational fishing. Part of the reason for this is because rockfish experience something called barotrauma. They have a specialized air sac that helps them control buoyancy in the water and when they are brought to the surface, they are unable to release this expanding gas which can cause their eyes and stomach to expand and, sometimes, explode. Yelloweye rockfish (Pacific Ocean inside and outside waters populations) are listed as Special Concern under SARA (Schedule 1, Special Concern) and COSEWIC.