Motion wants Steller sea lion info to update management


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This story was corrected Oct. 16 to reflect who filed the CIE reports with the court.

Steller sea lions, vessel replacement, crab management and central Gulf of Alaska rationalization were all on the table at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage Oct. 3 to 9.

The agenda included more than the council could accomplish, and some crab management issues and a vessel monitoring system discussion paper were postponed.

The council moved on Steller sea lion issues Oct. 7, based on the advice of the Steller sea lion mitigation committee.

The council’s motion, which was passed with the objection of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, noted Center of Independent Experts peer review findings that faulted the science behind fishing restrictions in the western Aleutian Islands to protect food sources for endangered Steller sea lions.

The council motion made several recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, asking the agency to update its management and science based on new information.

NMFS is currently engaged in an appeal of a lawsuit brought by the State of Alaska and the fishing industry over the 2010 Steller sea lion biological opinion, and in the midst preparing a court-ordered environmental impact statement, or EIS, regarding the sea lion issues.

On Oct. 8, the plantiffs in that lawsuit - the state of Alaska and fishing industry representatives - filed the CIE opinions with the Alaska U.S. District Court and stated the peer review would be part of the EIS decision process. The biological opinion and fishing closures were upheld by Judge Timothy Burgess, but he found that NMFS violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not preparing a full EIS to support the action and ordered one to be prepared.

The council’s recommendations asked NMFS to change its management measures to reflect the CIE opinions before the 2013 fishery starts, expedite completion of the environmental impact statement currently in the works, and prepare a supplemental biological opinion that incorporates the new science.

The motion was largely based on the work of the mitigation committee, which made similar recommendations from a nearly-consensus status.

The council also weighed in on the EIS scoping process, suggesting certain alternatives for that process, including looking farther out geographically than just the central and western Aleutians.

The council’s motion said the CIE reviewers thought the 2010 biological opinion was not based on scientific evidence, and that many of the conclusions and actions taken from the opinion were not support by science. That biological opinion was the basis for management that shut down Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fisheries to protect the Steller sea lion population.

During a presentation to the council before a decision was made, NMFS said it was proceeding with the court-ordered timeline for the EIS and did not intend to make other changes before that process was finished.

The current timeline calls for the EIS to be completed by March 2014. A decision would likely be finished by February of that year. There might be enough work done to discuss an emergency rule by October 2013.

 

Gulf of Alaska rationalization

The council also discussed creating tools to better manage prohibited species catch in the central Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet.

Representatives of that fleet, including Brent Paine, came to the council asking for a rationalization, or catch share, program that would allocate the harvest and the prohibited species catch among vessels, cooperatives or other entities.

“You guys have the power to do this, and we ask you to do it,” Paine said.

The council also heard from those in other fisheries who wanted the council to consider the protections they would need to avoid hurting their fleets in an effort to rationalize the central gulf trawlers.

Terry Haines said he wanted to see the process enhance the Kodiak economy, not hurt it.

“I think that we have a culture and a community that’s worth preserving and saving,” Haines said.

The council asked for the public to come forward with ways to institute a catch share program, and creative management tools, when the issue is back before the council.

 

Vessel replacement programs

The council also moved forward with three vessel replacement programs Oct. 7.

The council took final action on a licensing change for Bering Sea freezer longline vessels, unanimously recommending that those vessels be allowed to build longer replacements.

Under the recommended program, the vessels can be replaced or rebuilt with larger freezer longlines that have different processing capacities. The new vessels can be as long as 220 feet. They’ll likely be more efficient in addition to safer, and could have a better ability to reduce bycatch, as well.

The council heard from the Freezer Longline Coalition Executive Director Kenny Down on the need for replacements, as well as from the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health. All stated a need for safer vessels.

Many of the Bering Sea vessels also operate in the Gulf of Alaska, where other freezer longliners are licensed to operate only in that region, and will not be eligible for the replacement program. To protect the Gulf-only vessels not upgrading their boats, the Bering Sea vessels, which are part of a voluntary cooperative, are working towards an agreement with those vessels, Down said.

The fleet also includes some pot cod licenses. Those will have to choose to upgrade the boat and give up the pot cod license, or retain the license without upgrading past their current length limit.

The council also directed staff to bring forward an analysis on a replacement program for the Amendment 80 fleet in the Bering Sea. The Amendment 80 fleet are groundfish trawl catcher-processors.

The analysis will consider a status quo option, as well as an annual or one-time election to allow American Fisheries Act (pollock fleet) catcher-processors to replace Amendment 80 vessels, with the condition that the replacement vessels are subject to most AFA sideboards and other Amendment 80 regulations.

 

Crab stock assessments

Council Plan Coordinator Diana Stram also updated the council on crab stock status.

Stram said that Bering Sea tanner crab, which is closed for the third straight year, is no longer considered to be in a rebuilding status.

Changes to the tanner crab model, approved by the council Statistical and Scientific Committee, alter the recruitment aspect of the model to consider a different base time frame. As a result, the stock is concerned to be at an acceptable biomass, and not working towards rebuilding to a higher level.

The state of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game recently announced the total allowable catch, or TAC, for several crab fisheries.

The TAC is set by the state of Alaska, after it is provided with an overfishing limit and acceptable biological catch from federal scientists and regulators.

For Bristol Bay red king crab, the TAC is holding steady at 7.853 million pounds, the same as last year’s quota. Just more than 7 million is for the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, program, while the Community Development Quota, or CDQ, portion of the TAC is 785,300 pounds.

St. Matthew’s blue king crab has a TAC of 2.028 million pounds, down slightly from 2.36 million pounds in 2011-12. IFQ holders can take 1.47 million pounds of that, with the remaining 163,000 pounds going to CDQ groups.

The snow crab TAC was set at 66.3 million pounds, down 25 percent from last year. The department announced the quota Oct. 5. IFQ holders will be able to harvest 59.7 million pounds, while CDQ programs will take the remaining 6.63 million pounds. Portions of the snow crab fishery will be closed to protect the Pribilof blue king crab stock.

The department announced Oct. 2 that the Bering Sea tanner crab fishery will again be closed because the estimate of mature female tanner crab biomass is below the harvest strategy threshold. That fishery was declared overfished in 2010, and closed in 2011.

 

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

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