Council seeks info on reducing salmon, halibut bycatch


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Roy Ashenfelter testifies to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on June 6 about chum and chinook salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea. Ashenfelter, who lives in White Mountain, traveled to Nome for the meeting, and talked about the severe restrictions in-river salmon fishers face.

Photo/Molly Dischner/AJOC

NOME — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council asked for analysis of reduced limits for chinook salmon and halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea.

The council motions on salmon and halibut bycatch over the weekend of June 7 at the Mini Convention Center in Nome asked its staff for analysis of reducing the prohibited species catch caps on those species in certain fleets, as well as looking at other regulatory efforts to reduce bycatch of those species in addition to chum salmon.

The motions also called for continued voluntary bycatch reduction from industry.

Analysis of a regulatory amendment package is the first step toward action, but it will likely take several meetings before any action is taken, and a reduction is not guaranteed. The salmon package will tentatively come back before the council for initial review in December; halibut will likely be discussed in February.

The North Pacific council manages most federal fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska. The reduced caps will be considered for salmon in caught in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, and for halibut in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries.

The current cap for chinook salmon in the pollock fishery is 60,000 per year, which passed in 2009 and was implemented in 2011. For halibut it is 4,575 metric tons, or about 10 million pounds. There is currently no limit on chum salmon bycatch.

The council heard significant public testimony calling for both caps to be reduced, primarily from stakeholders who depend on directed fishing for those stocks.

The current chinook bycatch cap has two parts: a lower number that is the performance standard of 47,591 and a higher number, the hard cap of 60,000. By joining Incentive Plan Agreements, or IPAs, pollock vessels receive a prorated share of the cap of 60,000. Any vessel that does not join an IPA receives a prorated share of the lower cap.

The IPAs are intended for industry to work together to reduce and avoid bycatch. If the cap of 60,000 is exceeded more than twice in any seven-year period, the cap reverts to the performance standard of 47,591 for all vessels.

The analysis will look at reducing the performance standard to either 36,693 or 19,036 chinooks at times when Western Alaska stocks are at low abundance. The most recent genetic analysis of chinook bycatch by the Bering Sea pollock fleet indicates about 70 percent of it is Western Alaska salmon.

Through the winter season this year, the fleet caught 11,536 chinook compared to 8,237 in the 2013 winter season. The summer/fall pollock season began June 10.

Most chinook salmon fisheries in Western Alaska are shut down this summer, including for subsistence users. The directed commercial halibut fishery in the Bering Sea has also faced reduced catch limits in recent years.

The council’s Advisory Panel, or AP, recommended initiating emergency rulemaking for halibut, and did not recommend looking at reduced chinook salmon caps.

The Association of Village Council Presidents, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association and other organizations representing Western Alaska stakeholders called for emergency action to reduce the chinook cap given the severe restrictions in-river users face.

“The mood on the river is zero bycatch,” said TCC representative Gale Vick.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, who represents the state on the council, made the motion for action, and referenced the all-time low returns of Western Alaska king stocks.

“We will see an unprecedented level of management restrictions in the directed fisheries this year,” Campbell said. “No commercial harvest, no sport harvest, the most severe subsistence restrictions to date, where subsistence harvest has been so restricted that most users will get either no opportunity or extremely minimal opportunity to have any harvest of chinook salmon.”

Campbell’s motion passed unanimously, with several amendments adding additional components, but council members indicated that there would be more questions about the alternatives down the line.

Council member Duncan Fields said before the council’s vote that he was troubled by the extended timeline to achieve a reduction in the chinook take, although he thought Campbell’s motion was a significant step in the right direction.

Fields said that when Western Alaska chinook stocks are not meeting escapement goals, any catch in the Bering Sea is contributing to the missed goals, and the commercial fleet is essentially fishing on escapement.

Others noted concerns for industry if all aspects of the motion were implemented.

Although he ultimately supported the motion, council member John Henderschedt of Seattle said he thought there were negative potential implications of certain elements in the motion.

Henderschedt said that the council had to balance being responsive to stock status with an obligation to achieve optimum yield in the pollock fishery, and that the motion reflected that balance.

“If measures that we have in place result in leaving pollock in the water, that is not in my view a success,” he said. “It’s not really even representative of any sort of equality.”

Fields tried to amend the motion to tie each sector to the performance standard more stringently, but that failed in a 10-1 vote, with Fields as the only person supporting it.

Henderschedt said he thought Campbell’s motion was a balanced approach to the situation, but Fields’ more stringent application of the standard could be akin to throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and making it difficult for sectors to regulate themselves with IPAs.

Council member Bill Tweit agreed.

Campbell said she didn’t want to add too many components for analysis because her goal was to keep the motion simple enough to keep moving forward, in response to stakeholders’ requests for quick action.

“I hear the anxiety on the part of those representing the industry,” Fields said. “I also hear Commissioner Campbell’s concerns to move this package quickly.”

The motion also called for analysis of information relating to a reduction in the performance standard including how to apply it to different sectors and how to apply it seasonally.

The alternatives could add chum to the current Amendment 91 incentive plan agreements, require the agreements to have several new provisions, and shorten the pollock season, and reduce the performance standard component of the cap on chinook.

The new IPA provisions included for analysis include restrictions or penalties for the vessels with the highest chinook salmon rates, requiring salmon excluders with certain exceptions, a rolling hotspot program for the full A and B seasons, limiting the duration of salmon savings credits for the IPAs that include them, and criteria to ensure that October fishing does not result in higher chinook PSC rates.

The language in the council’s motion specifies that chinook bycatch avoidance would take priority over chums when the two conflict.

Council member Dan Hull made the motion for analysis of halibut bycatch cuts, which passed unanimously.

Industry was asked to continue voluntary work on bycatch reduction that is underway, with a target of a 10 percent reduction.

The regulatory changes up for analysis include a seasonal apportionment of halibut prohibited species catch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl limited access sector, reduced halibut limits for Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl limited access sector, Amendment 80 sector, hook-and-line catcher vessel sector, and hook-and-line catcher-processor sector, as well as a reduction in halibut bycatch for the community development quota fleet.

The Amendment 80 fleet are groundfish bottom trawl catcher-processors.

The analysis will look at regulatory cuts of between 10 percent and 35 percent for each sector.

It will also look at deck sorting for the Amendment 80 sector, interactions between halibut, chinook and chum protections, possible reductions of halibut bycatch and discards in the sablefish and directed halibut fisheries, subsistence halibut use in the Bering Sea, and halibut bycatch in the halibut nursery area closed to directed halibut fishing but open to other commercial fishing activity.

The motion also called for bycatch reduction and accounting changes outside of the regulatory process through requests to industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS.

The council asked NMFS to work with the International Pacific Halibut Commission on getting better halibut bycatch and discard size data into the commission’s stock assessments. The council also asked NMFS to review an earlier start to the fishing season, and alterations to the area closures in the Amendment 80 program, as well as work with that sector on deck sorting.

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