Managers meet, tackle state waters Gulf issues


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State and federal regulators met May 21 to discuss how to coordinate their efforts and create complimentary management in the changing Gulf of Alaska fisheries.

Members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council gathered in Anchorage at their annual joint protocol meeting to discuss the issues of mutual concern, including how to address changes coming for the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries.

The North Pacific council, which manages fishing in federal waters from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska, is working toward a rationalization package for the Gulf that will likely allocate fishing privileges to certain participants based on their history in the fishery or other factors.

That’s intended to help provide tools to cut down bycatch in the Gulf by slowing down the fishery.

Currently, the council is considering a rationalization program for trawlers targeting pollock, Pacific cod, and several other target and secondary species in the central Gulf of Alaska, western Gulf of Alaska and west Yakutat management areas.

The most recent council motion asked for a discussion paper that looks at using cooperatives to help manage the fisheries, by allocating the quota to cooperatives, rather than individuals, with an option for fishers to remain outside of the cooperative structure, but not receive a direct allocation of quota.

The state’s Board of Fisheries will eventually have to decide how to change its own fisheries to accommodate the federal changes.

The soonest the federal changes to the fishery will be implemented is 2017 or 2018 on a fast-track, according to North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver; the Board of Fisheries is expected to take up one proposal on the state-waters issue in March 2015 but could consider other proposals then or in the future.

Currently, the state has parallel fisheries in state waters for the federal Gulf fisheries that the council is looking to change. The parallel fisheries occur in state waters, but mirror the regulations on the federal side, and the catch comes out of the federal limits set by the council.

That makes for a seamless transition for boats going between state and federal waters, and boats take advantage of that for several reasons — economics, finding the fish, and even safety.

Several issues will arise for the state if the federal fisheries are rationalized however.

In terms of offering a parallel fishery, it will be more difficult to find a way to open and close the fisheries in tandem and there will not be total federal limit from which to subtract the state waters catch.

Federal and state managers and participants have also noted that they’d like to find a way to preserve entry-level fishing opportunity in the state fishery.

The state cannot directly parallel a rationalized fishery in part because state regulations do not allow for catch share programs that give participants access to a certain share of the harvest. Cooperatives also generally cannot be used to limit or split up harvests in state fisheries under the Limited Entry Act, which requires active participation.

The Board of Fisheries could, however, implement a guideline harvest level fishery that was still open access in the state waters, or develop some sort of limited entry program for the affected fisheries.

No specific solutions for the state-waters issue were proposed at the May 21 meeting.

The committee meeting was largely an information-gathering session. After hearing staff reports on the possible rationalization program, the committee took public testimony but had only a limited discussion.

Right now, one proposal for a state fishery change in response to the federal changes is scheduled for discussion at the March 2015 statewide Board of Fisheries meeting, and the board has created a working group to discuss the issue.

The proposal set for discussion next year came from fisherman Matt Hegge. He asked the board this year to create state-waters pollock fisheries using trawl, seine or jig gear on vessels 58 feet or shorter, using 25 percent of the Central Gulf of Alaska acceptable biological catch for pollock.

The board postponed that, although it was discussed at the Lower Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Chignik meetings in 2013 and 2014.

ADFG has also made test fisheries available in state waters that allows fishers to seine and jig for pollock. That could also help provide the entry-level opportunity.

So far, there’s been little activity in the test fisheries, with no directed jig trips, but that’s expected to pick up in the fall, according to ADFG’s Karla Bush.

The dynamics of western Gulf fisheries add another dimension to the how the state will respond to a federal rationalization program.

Tom Evich, a trawler out of Sand Point, said pollock in the area near the Shumagain Islands is generally caught in one of two trenches: One is federal waters, one is state waters. At certain times of year, nearly all the catch comes out of the state waters area — other times, it comes from federal waters.

In other areas of the Western Gulf, fishers often move around, sometimes starting a tow in state waters and ending in federal waters, or vice versa, so it’s hard to say exactly how much catch is in state waters.

But, Evich said, a significant portion is caught in state waters through the parallel fishery, and the western Gulf fleet needs access to fishing in those waters for the fishery to continue. He asked the board to make sure any changes reflect the need for flexibility where western Gulf fish is caught.

Despite that challenge, Evich said he generally supports rationalization, as there’s currently no incentive for fishers to reduce bycatch in the western Gulf.

Evich was one of a handful of fishery participants who showed up to give public testimony on the Gulf of Alaska issue.

Another meeting is likely in the fall, after the Board of Fisheries workgroup formed earlier this year to look at the issue has its next meeting, and after the North Pacific council takes action on its current discussion paper.

Board of Fisheries member Sue Jeffrey of Kodiak, who is also on the pollock workgroup, said she thought having a full meeting with all members of the board and the council would also be helpful in the future.

Groundfish possession limits discussed

The committee also heard about other issues where they must coordinate management. The Petersburg Vessel Owners Association previously submitted identical proposals to the state and federal bodies asking for a change in how groundfish possession and landing limits are calculated, and the Board of Fisheries decided not to take action until it saw what direction federal managers were going.

The federal body has asked for a discussion paper on the issue.

Essentially, the change proposed by PVOA would mean that groundfish possession limits for non-target species would be applied at the time of delivery, but not necessarily in the middle of a fishing trip. That would enable vessels to have slightly higher ratios midtrip, as long as they were at the right level at the end of fishing. There was no action or discussion on that issue.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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