Evaluating Rockfish Conservation Areas in southern British Columbia, Canada using a Random Forest model of rocky reef habitat
We developed a rockfish habitat model to evaluate a network of Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) implemented by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to reverse population declines of inshore Pacific rockfishes (Sebastes spp.). We modeled rocky reef habitat in all nearshore waters of southern British Columbia (BC) using a supervised classification of variables derived from a bathymetry model with 20 m2 resolution. We compared the results from models at intermediate (20 m2) and fine (5 m2) resolutions in five test areas where acoustic multibeam echosounder and backscatter data were available. The inclusion of backscatter variables did not substantially improve model accuracy. The intermediate-resolution model performed well with an accuracy of 75%, except in very steep habitats such as coastal inlets; it was used to estimate the total habitat area and the percent of rocky habitat in 144 RCAs in southern BC. We also compared the amount of habitat estimated by our 20 m2 model to the 100 m2 management model used to designate the RCAs and found that a slightly lower proportion of habitat (18% vs 20%) but a considerably smaller area (400 km2 vs 1370 km2) is protected in the RCAs, likely as a result of the poor resolution of the original model. Empirically derived maps of important habitats, such as rocky reefs, are necessary to support effective marine spatial planning and to design and evaluate the efficacy of management and conservation actions.