Bering Sea canyons research approved with wide support


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An airship hired by Greenpeace floats above Juneau during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting. Greenpeace has pushed for research and protection measures for a pair of Bering Sea canyons.

Photo/Molly Dischner/AJOC

JUNEAU — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed to continue studying the Bering Sea canyons at its June meeting and work with stakeholders to draft possible protections, steps that were supported by both industry and environmental groups.

“I think all in all they listened to everyone, were thoughtful in their approach and that’s how the system works,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association.

The council passed two motions on the Bering Sea canyons, one regarding research on the canyons, and another calling for a broader discussion paper on a fisheries ecosystem plan for the region. Both passed with no objections.

Greenpeace and other environmental groups asked the council to protect the Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons in the Bering Sea in April 2012, and have been at the forefront of the request. Greenpeace did video surveys of the species present in the canyons, in addition to rallying public support for its cause.

The canyons are a feature in the Bering Sea that supports several species of fish, as well as other marine organisms including corals and sponges.

The council’s action in the Bering Sea canyons will continue the work to study the region, but does not stop any fishing activity in the region.

Before asking for the work, the council heard two reports on research done so far and extensive public testimony.

Mike Sigler from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, or AFSC, presented the National Marine Fisheries Service work on the region, including a look into whether or not the canyons are unique. That analysis included consideration of several factors.

Although the canyons are highly productive regions and contribute to the overall ecosystem, they are not specifically unique under the agency’s analysis, Sigler said.

The council has asked Sigler and the AFSC team to incorporate additional information into the analysis, including visual survey data, observer data, longline survey data and multi-beam sonar data.

Council staff analyst Diana Stram presented information about the council’s ability to manage the area.

The council’s motion also asked for a discussion paper on possible management measures for conserving areas of coral concentrations and associated fish productivity, and for staff to identify and develop tools for coral impact reduction, all in conjunction with stakeholders.

The also called for drafting a letter requesting that the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program study areas with relatively high coral abundance.

The council tentatively asked for an update on those efforts at its October meeting, depending on staff workloads and time available on the agenda.

The council’s other motion asked for a discussion paper about creating a Bering Sea fisheries ecosystem plan, or FEP.

Council member John Henderschedt, who made both motions, said he thought it was important to look at the Bering Sea issues from an ecosystem level. The canyons are part of the Bering Sea slope, but ultimately they are connected to the entire region, he said.

Henderschedt said FEPs are a way to begin looking at how climate change and related issues will impact the entire region, not just one species.

Council member Duncan Fields said he supported the discussion paper as a step toward advancing the scientific understanding of the canyons.

The Marine Conservation Alliance, the council’s Ecosystem Committee and others recommended that the council pursue further research into the region.

Alaska Intertribal Council’s George Pletnikoff said he was glad to see the council take action.

The council’s motion was purposeful, and put the Bering Sea canyons and the Bering Sea slope onto the radar for the public to pay attention to, Pletnikoff said.

“In that sense, today was a very good day for the canyons,” he said.

Madsen agreed that the council’s action was a “deliberative step” in trying to better understand the region, and commended the council for taking a science-based look at the need for protection.

“We support that kind of approach,” Madsen said.

The industry had some concern over the call for protections when Greenpeace began its Bering Sea canyons campaign, given the organization’s past history of calling for the complete shutdown of factory trawlers, and didn’t support broad closures at this time, Madsen said.

But, she said, she had faith that the council process would work, and that the body would remain focused on science-based management.

Greenpeace’s involvement at this meeting went beyond public testimony to include an airship flying around Juneau asking for protections and a banner held outside Centennial Hall and inside the meeting room on the day the council considered the issue. The organization also collected thousands of letters on the issue.

The council’s motion called for stakeholder involvement in developing possible management measures. During discussion, council members specified that they intended to include both industry and other groups that had registered interest in the matter.

Pletnikoff was one of several people who spoke during public testimony asking the council to consider input from the Alaska Native community. The council’s signal that it would involve stakeholders was a positive sign, Pletnikoff said.

“It behooves us now for organizations interested to pay close attention to this issue as it develops and to demand a seat at the table,” Pletnikoff said.

Pletnikoff said indigenous groups need to be part of the solution and work on possible alternatives when the action reaches that point.

Both Madsen and Pletnikoff also supported the council’s motion to pursue an ecosystem management plan.

Madsen said a Bering Sea ecosystem plan is the first step toward getting people to understand the interconnectedness of all aspects of the marine environment. So far, the Aleutian Islands FEP has worked well for industry, she said.

Pletnikoff said the ecosystem plan is a positive signal for future management. Instead of looking at the extraction of one species, the council will talk about how several parts of the Bering Sea ecosystem are interdependent, which is crucial to future management, he said.

Overall, Pletnikoff described the council’s action as “courageous.”

“We asked for the moon and didn’t get it, but it was very close,” he said.

Sea lion discussion continues

The council also discussed Steller sea lion protections, and heard an update from the NMFS on the court-ordered update to its environmental impact statement, or EIS, regarding Steller sea lion protections in the Aleutian Islands.

The protection measures in the EIS have shut down much of the Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries in the Aleutian Islands, which impacts fishermen and processors.

NMFS released a draft of the new EIS for public review in May, which the council motion characterized as an improvement from the version it saw in April, but said still did not address all of its concerns.

The motion recommended that NMFS include an analysis of the potential impacts of fishing on sea lions, their prey, and critical habitat, and incorporate the agency’s responses to independent peer reviews already conducted into the document and apply it to the new range of alternatives.

The current draft EIS assumes that fishing will have a negative impact on Steller sea lions. That’s an idea based largely in the nutritional stress hypothesis, which asserts that the primary challenge for the sea lions is a lack of food. But previous independent reviews of the 2010 biological opinion have questioned the basis for that hypothesis.

NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger said a 2006 recovery plan was drafted in cooperation with industry would be the standard used to judge sea lions and their progress.

That plan, however, has become a contentious issue, and the council’s motion asks the agency to reconsider such a policy decision.

In 2007, several contributors sent a letter to NMFS assistant Administrator for Fisheries William Hogarth questioning changes to the revised document and the characterization of their authorship. One author asked for his name to be removed.

The original document listed multiple hypotheses for the decline in Steller sea lions, while the revised blamed it only on availability of certain fish.

The sea lion motion passed with one objection on the final day of the meeting during the staff tasking agenda from Glenn Merrill of NMFS sitting in place of Balsiger. Merrill said he could not support some of the statements in the motion, particularly those that seemed to cast a legal opinion on the agency’s work.

Gov. Sean Parnell addressed the council briefly during the meeting, and commented on the sea lion issue, asking the body to consider the communities that are dependent on the fisheries.

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

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