Alaskan rockfish just 64, not 200 years old

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SEATTLE — Just like Pinocchio’s nose, fish stories tend to grow in big proportions.

One tale swirling in the briny depths of fish lore happened June 21 when Henry Liebman of Seattle took a trip to Sitka, Alaska aboard Angling Unlimited charters, and caught a pending record 39.08-pound shortraker rockfish — the current record is 38.68 pounds.

Rumors quickly went viral through the news media that the fish was 200 years old, but recent findings by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau determined the fish to be 64 years old.

“The final age is based on the otoliths (fish’s equivalent of ear bones that form annual rings),” said Tom Ohaus, owner of Angling Unlimited. “Things got generated that this fish was swimming around when (President) James Madison was in the White House, but obviously it wasn’t.”

“These fish tend to plateau in size at age 50, at which point biologists are aware that any linear connection between size and age is nearly nonexistent,” said Ohaus.

Kristen Green, a groundfish project leader for Alaska’s southeastern region said in a news release from Angling Unlimited that figuring out the fish’s age by weight and size was inaccurate.

“It’s impossible to age a rockfish once it has matured just by looking at it,” said Green. “The otoliths are the only way to accurately determine its age.”

The oldest recorded rockfish, a rougheye, was 205 years old and measured at 32 inches.

Liebman — the CEO of American Life Inc. in Seattle (another fact some media got wrong, referring to him as an insurance broker) and one of the largest Sodo property owners — believes the age will remain a mystery.

“There are too many inconsistencies on the age of the fish, and I don’t think anyone has a clue,” Liebman said. “All we know is the fish seems to live a long time.”

Another issue Ohaus mentioned was that many were upset with Liebman for keeping the rockfish instead of releasing it.

“That was a real concern, and the news of how awful it is to catch and keep such an old fish,” Ohaus said. “There is no impact on this deep-dwelling fish, and it wouldn’t by any means ruin their population. (Liebman) had done research on shortrakers, and it’s not like they were killing a bunch of them.”

Liebman agreed.

“We caught eight of them all within a short period of time, and these deep-water fish likely had never seen a hook and line,” said Liebman, whose fishing group used heavy halibut fishing gear and fish guts for bait.

“When you pull a rockfish from 300 or 400 feet, maybe you’ve got a prayer of reviving them, but at 900 feet they’re going to be blown out once they get to the top,” Liebman said. “I don’t think at that depth you could put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”

Ohaus congratulated Liebman on what is definitely an Alaska state record, and more than likely an International Game Fish Association world record.

“We support sustainable harvest of all fish species,” he said, “and know that a close look at the sport harvest of deep water rockfish in Alaska shows the impact the fleet has on shortrakers is essentially zero.”

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