Council takes up sea lions, scallops and salmon

Photo/Michael Dinneen/AJOC

Fishing and tender vessels traveling in the walrus protection area at Bristol Bay could have a little more room to maneuver under action slated for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s April meeting.

The council manages federal fisheries between three and 200 miles offshore from Alaska. It meets in Anchorage April 9 to 14 to consider a variety of fishery management changes, including final action on a transit corridor at Round Island for vessels with federal fishing permits.

The council will also take up several other issues, including fishery management measures to protect Steller sea lions, the ongoing Bering Sea canyons issue, reports from various fishing cooperatives, a discussion of Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska salmon bycatch and the 2014 scallop harvest levels.

Round Island is part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary in Bristol Bay, and the council’s preliminary preferred alternative would create transit areas north of Round Island and south of Cape Pierce from April 1 to Aug. 15 for vessels with federal fishing permits. Vessel monitoring would continue, and may have to increase, according to the analysis.

The current transit prohibitions and corridors apply only to federally-permitted fishing vessels. Other traffic, including vessels participating only in state waters fisheries, is not constrained by the council’s protections in the area.

The change would mean that vessels with federal permits could still act as tenders for the state-managed salmon and herring fisheries in Bristol Bay without going significantly out of their way to avoid the protection area. Vessels participating in area groundfish fisheries and delivering to floating catcher processors could also transit the area.

The other alternatives analyzed would maintain the current protections instead of creating one or both of the corridors, or result in a larger buffer around Round Island.

Steller sea lions are also on the council’s April agenda.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, is working on a court-ordered environmental impact statement, or EIS, regarding the endangered western distinct population segment of Steller sea lions.

NMFS severely restricted fishing for Pacific cod, Atka mackerel and pollock to protect food sources for the sea lions, and a federal judge upheld the protections temporarily but ordered the agency to prepare a full EIS to justify the fishing restrictions.

The original restrictions were based on a less-thorough environmental assessment, and a federal judge found that action violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

Earlier this year, a judge extended the timeline for the new EIS to August to enable the agency to work with the council and stakeholders on developing new protections if it determines that the council’s preferred fishery management measures now under consideration will result in jeopardy or adverse modification to the sea lions’ habitat.

Jeopardy or adverse modification, also known as JAM, are terms from the Endangered Species Act, and no federal action, such as allowing commercial fishing, can be taken that could result in such impacts.

As part of the process to prepare an EIS, the council has recommended a suite of management measures that would be less restrictive than those implemented by the agency in 2011.

NMFS announced April 2 that the council’s proposed management measures would not cause JAM, meaning that the EIS should be finished well before August, and fishermen should operate under less restrictive regulations beginning in January.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, Eileen Sobeck, will also attend the meeting on April 14. Sobeck will attend a reception April 13 and meet with the council April 14, according to the draft agenda.

Scallop harvest, Bering Sea canyons on the table

The council is also set to discuss the 2014 scallop harvest and review a discussion paper on the Bering Sea canyons.

State and federal managers have previously managed the scallop fishery jointly with a single harvest level, as many of the scallop beds straddle the three-mile line that separates state and federal jurisdiction.

This year, however, the state-waters portion will be open access after the prior vessel-based limited entry program sunsetted and was not renewed by the legislature in 2013 due to concerns about excessive consolidation in the fishery.

State Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, the key legislator involved in ending the state waters scallop limited entry program, has asked the federal managers to also review consolidation in the federal program.

State managers are preparing for the new fishery, and vessels intending to participate were required to register with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game by April 1.

Through the end of March, 12 individuals had purchased permits from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, although just seven had registered with ADFG.

The council requested the Bering Sea canyons paper last June, at its meeting in Juneau when environmental groups made a strong push for work toward protecting the Bering Sea slope and Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons, all in the eastern Bering Sea, north of the Alaska Peninsula.

The discussion paper summarizes what is known about the abundance and diversity of corals on the slope and in the canyons, and identifies potential management tools, such as area closures or limits to fishing to protect the canyons. Coral protections have already been implemented in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska.

In February, the council held a public workshop on the canyons issue and also heard significant testimony from members of the public affiliated with Greenpeace.

Bycatch, cooperative reports scheduled

The council is also slated to hear reports from several cooperatives and fleets on their 2013 activities.

The Bering Sea crab cooperatives will report on voluntary measures they have taken that are intended to provide entry into the fishery to crew members, and address lease rates and crew compensation.

Annual reports from the Gulf of Alaska rockfish, Amendment 80 and American Fisheries Act cooperatives are also due at the meeting. Amendment 80 vessels are groundfish trawler catcher processors and American Fisheries Act co-ops make up the Bering Sea pollock fleet of catcher vessels and catcher processors.

In addition, the council will also hear reports on incentive savings plans. Participating in an incentive savings plan allows pollock vessels to receive a larger allocation of king salmon bycatch in exchange for working cooperatively to reduce bycatch. Reports on the genetics of king and chum bycatch in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska are also on the agenda.

According to the genetics reports based on 2012 sampling, about 63 percent of the kings caught in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands pollock trawl fishery were headed for coastal Western Alaska, with smaller portions headed to the North Alaska Peninsula, British Columbia, and the U.S. west coast.

More of the bycatch in the “B” season, or summer/fall, was headed south than salmon caught in the the “A” season, or winter.

The coastal Western Alaska designation includes the Norton Sound, Kuskokwim Bay and Bristol Bay areas.

In the Gulf of Alaska, about half of the kings sampled in the pollock trawl fishery were headed to British Columbia, and 28 percent were headed to the U.S. west coast, with a smaller fraction headed for Southeast Alaska. Those numbers, however, can’t be extrapolated to the fishery as a whole because they are not based on a systematic sample.

In the Bering Sea, more than half of the chum bycatch samples were from North or East Asian rivers.

04/04/2014 - 10:30am