Halt off Northwest's coast may harm industryCommercial trawl fishermen are outraged by federal fisheries managers' failure to enact an emergency rule in time to allow fishing to continue past this weekend. Locally, the delay could keep many in the fishing industry out of work.

In an effort to protect darkblotch rockfish - one of a handful of species scientists say is in severe decline - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries will close all trawl fishing north of Cape Mendocino, Calif., Sunday. The darkblotch rockfish are typically found in water depths of 100 to 250 fathoms.

Fishermen had hoped that fishing would be allowed outside this area, but because the federal agency will not have a rule in place by the Sunday deadline, all trawling off Oregon, Washington and Northern California will be closed until a rule reopening it can be enacted.

"That's deplorable," said Oregon Trawl Commission Administrator Joe Easley. "I don't think it was necessary to be shutting down a whole fishery. They had 2 1/2 months almost to get this thing done."

The in-season restriction on fishing was requested by the Pacific Fishery Management Council at its June meeting. Implementation of the rule fell to NOAA Fisheries because council rules would have prevented it from taking action fast enough, said Yvonne deReynier, NOAA Fisheries Northwest groundfish team leader.

Council rules require new management measures, such as depth-based fishing restrictions, to be considered at two meetings before they can be implemented.

As for the emergency rule's tardy arrival, deReynier said, "We have to comply with several different laws and in those laws we have a set series of analyses to go through and those take time."

Further delaying the rule, NOAA Fisheries, also known as National Marine Fisheries Service, found that the council's management recommendations would not protect darkblotch rockfish to its satisfaction.

"The council had asked for opening (the fishery) inside of 100 fathoms and outside of 250 fathoms, and that's what we found was not conservative enough," she said.

To address this, NOAA Fisheries plans to limit fishing in September - a month with higher incidental catch rates for darkblotch - to waters outside of 250 fathoms. Near-shore fishing inside of 100 fathoms could be opened again in October through the end of the year, deReynier said.

She said the agency is working to complete a rule reopening fishing beyond 250 fathoms by the end of the first week of September.

Every day the fishermen have to wait for the rule is another day they're not able to fish.

"It depends on how long it lasts," Easley said. "If it don't last very long it won't have much impact. I suspect it'll have more impact ... on people like crews on the vessels, people like the fish plant workers, fileters and so forth, (who) wouldn't have anything to do. All those people would probably feel it more than the vessel owner would in the long haul. I'm not saying that (vessel owners) won't. I'm saying that's where you'll see the impacts first."

Some fishermen, like Tom Morrison, think that the entire plan to protect darkblotch rockfish is wrong-headed.

"Nobody's catching any darkblotch," he said. "We're not even close. There's no problem to start with."

Easley said the darkblotch rockfish can be hard to distinguish from certain other species. Fishery managers may be overestimating the number of darkblotch rockfish caught and crafting policy on this inaccurate information, he said.

"For one thing, I'm not sure that we really have a problem, and I say that because of the difficulties of stock identification that they're having down south between darkblotch and black gill rockfish," he said. "Unless you really know what you're looking at, it's hard to distinguish between them."

Accurately quantifying many groundfish species with stocks in severe decline has complicated management.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled to address this at its next meeting, Sept. 9 to 13 in Portland.

"It's an issue that still hasn't been resolved," Easley said. "And hopefully they'll get it resolved before too much longer ... before next season starts, at least."