Understanding Depth Limits in the Recreational Groundfish Fishery

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California Groundfish Management Areas  map by CDFW Marine Region GIS Lab

New recreational groundfish regulations went into effect in 2017, including changes to depth limits in some areas of the state. These changes provide more opportunity than before, opening areas that have been closed for many years.

With the regulation changes have come questions from the public asking for clarification regarding how depths are defined. We hope the explanation provided here will enable all California sportsmen and women to understand and follow the depth limit regulations.

Since 2002, Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) have been used to close waters of certain depths to fishing for groundfish. The RCAs were established to help protect and rebuild overfished stocks, by prohibiting groundfish fishing in places where these stocks are most frequently encountered. Depth restrictions vary by management area, depending on which species are in need of protection.

The regulations that define allowable fishing depths can be confusing for anglers, because they are written differently depending on the RCA.

In northern California’s Mendocino Management Area, when boat-based fishing is open, Section 27.30 (b)(2) of Title 14 CCR specifies that take of all species is ‘prohibited seaward of 20 fathoms.’ The regulation further provides that this 20-fathom depth constraint is described by the general depth contour (in other words, the actual depth of water, as one would see on a depth finder). That definition applies in the Mendocino Management Area whether fishing occurs along the mainland coast, or along islands or offshore seamounts.

Meanwhile, in southern California’s Cowcod Conservation Areas, when boat-based fishing is open, take of all species is allowed “only in waters shallower than 20 fathoms in depth” (per Section 27.50 (b)(2) of  Title 14, CCR). Similar to the Mendocino Management Area, this regulation provides that the 20-fathom depth constraint is described by the general depth contour (in other words, the actual depth of water, as one would see on a depth finder).

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Passing on fishing skills, including how to follow the regulations, is an important part of learning how to fish for groundfish  photo courtesy Sanctuary Classic

In the other groundfish management areas, fishing is allowed in deeper depths – out to 30 or even 60 fathoms in the Southern Management Area. The RCA regulations for these depths are written quite differently than those above – and it is important for anglers to take note of the differences.

In the Southern, Central, San Francisco, and Northern management areas, the regulations prohibit fishing “seaward of a line” approximating the particular depth contour, both along the mainland coast and at offshore islands and seamounts. These depth lines are defined by connecting a set of waypoints that are specified in federal regulations (50 CFR Subpart C §660.71- §660.74). Anglers can download these waypoints from the National Marine Fisheries Service website.

To stay up-to-date on current groundfish regulation information, check the CDFW website for recreational regulations or call the Recreational Groundfish Hotline at (831) 649-2801.


post by CDFW Staff