Sea lions, Gulf quotas, salmon bycatch top council agenda


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Steller sea lions gather at a haulout on Amak Island on the western edge of the Alaska Peninsula. Fishing closures imposed in 2011 to protect food sources for the endangered species are up for review before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its upcoming October meeting in Anchorage. The council is expected to take final action on new management measures that would allow some additional fishing in the central and western Aleutian Islands.

Photo/Courtesy/US Fish & Wildlife Service

A final decision is scheduled for Steller sea lion protection measures at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s October meeting.

The council will meet Oct. 2-8 in Anchorage, with Steller sea lion protections slated to come up Oct. 3.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, is in the midst of a court-ordered process to reconsider the Steller sea lion protection measures implemented in 2011. The western population of the Steller sea lions is endangered, and NMFS has concluded that nutritional stress is the cause as a result of food competition from fishing removals.

The protections limit fishing for Pacific cod and Atka mackerel to protect Steller sea lion food sources in the western Aleutian Islands. In the farthest west fishing grounds, NMFS closed an area half the size of Texas, with various other restrictions extending into the central Aleutians.

The State of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued NMFS over the rules in 2010, and a U.S. District judge ruled in 2011 that the federal agency did not follow the National Environmental Policy Act in forming the restriction. While he let the fishing closures remain, he ordered NMFS to prepare a full environmental impact statement, or EIS, to support the rules or to come up with alternative measures.

The council is expected to take final action to recommend management measures under the EIS that has since been prepared under the court order.

Other items on the agenda are fishing limits for several crab stocks including Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab, final action on an economic data collection program for Gulf of Alaska trawlers and groundfish harvest specifications.

As part of the Steller sea lion EIS process, the council has selected a new suite of possible management measures, ranging from the interim rule currently in place, to those that are less restrictive and attempt to provide more relief to the communities dependent on fishing in the area.

The council’s preliminary preferred alternative, or PPA, includes area catch limits for the pollock fishery and maintains the vessel monitoring system requirements currently in place. The alternative would also provide the council with some flexibility in choosing the harvest specifications for Atka mackerel in Area 543 (the farthest west area now closed), and generally offer more Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fishing than the status quo, although both would still be limited.

NMFS also provided the council with a draft of its Comment Analysis Report, which responds to the public comments received from May to July on the draft EIS.

The final EIS and comment analysis are due in March.

Many of the comments question the public process so far, to which NMFS responded that the required National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, process has been followed, and that the guidance the agency has provided the council so far was reasonable.

The council’s June motion also asked NMFS to reconsider some of its ideas about Steller sea lions and look at possible issues for the species other than competition for food. Those issues will likely come back up at the meeting.

Gulf of Alaska rationalization

Consideration of economic data collection in the Gulf will come as part of a broader discussion of trawl issues in that region. The focus is a discussion paper on Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management. Some in the industry have asked that the fishery be rationalized — with fishing quota issued to vessel owners — to facilitate bycatch reduction.

Data collection on the current state of the trawl fleet could provide a better sense of the impacts of rationalization, particularly the socio-economic factors for fishing dependent Kodiak.

The data collection program would gather information on employment, fuel and gear costs, efforts to avoid prohibited species catch and electric and water use by Kodiak processors.

The program would require about 20 hours of reporting from a catcher processor, and less for catcher vessels and floating processors. That information could then be used to assess changes in the fishery later on, such as by looking at how wages or spending is altered if the fishery is rationalized.

The data collection program is the council’s preliminary preferred alternative, and would be implemented in a fast-tracked manner to try and quickly compile a picture of the fishery as it is now.

A rationalization program could assist with limiting bycatch by slowing down the fishery and ending the race for fish, but also brings possible consolidation to the fishery that could eliminate jobs.

The discussion paper looks at several aspects of rationalization, including the industry proposals for how to divvy up the fishery, interplay between state and federal management in the Gulf, and possible ways to protect communities.

Community protections, and ways to ensure that smaller operators retain the ability to enter the fisheries, will likely be a key component of the October discussion.

In June, the council passed a king salmon bycatch cap for the non-pollock trawl fleet in the Gulf.  Also as part of the Gulf discussion, the council will conduct its initial review of rollover provisions for the king bycatch cap in the rockfish program. The rockfish fishery is already rationalized with fishing quota that is issued through vessel cooperatives.

At the June meeting, the council agreed to consider such a provision as a trailing amendment, rather than delay the main cap.

The alternatives up for consideration for a rollover are various configurations of a rollover from the rockfish program to other Gulf trawlers, the possibility of removing the uncertainty pool if the rollover was implemented, and a no-action option.

The council will also discuss bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, including a report from industry on chum salmon caught incidentally in that area.

The council considered a chum cap last October, which had significant public support from those in western Alaska, but did not take action. Instead the council asked industry to bring forward possible ways to avoid catching chums at a future meeting.

At the same time, the council will review the king salmon bycatch report for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, including a report on genetic stock identification.

Crab quotas

The council will also discuss the certain crab and groundfish harvests for upcoming seasons, and hear a report on the sablefish catch in the Bering Sea.

The crab catches up for approval are the eastern Bering Sea snow crab, Bristol Bay red king crab, eastern Bering Sea tanner crab, Pribilof Islands red king crab, Pribilof Islands blue king crab, St. Matthew blue king crab, Norton Sound red king crab, Aleutian Islands golden king crab, Pribilof District golden king crab and Adak red king crab.

Bristol Bay and Norton Sound red king crab stocks both appear to be poised for a lower total allowable catch, or TAC, this year, based on the stock status reports.

Adak red king crab and Pribilof Islands blue king crab, are also up for approval, but are set to be closed. Pribilof Islands red king crab is also not likely to have a directed fishery. Eastern Bering Sea tanner crab has not had a directed fishery in the recent past, although it could be reopened this year.

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

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