New transit approved for Bay; canyon research continues

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took final action at its April meeting in Anchorage to change the rules for vessel transit through Bristol Bay.

Fishing vessels with federal permits will now be allowed to transit closer to Round Island in Bristol Bay’s Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary than previously allowed.

Under the council’s motion, vessels with federal permits can come as close as three miles to Round Island, and three miles from Cape Pierce, from April 1 to Aug. 15. Round Island is located about halfway between Togiak and Dillingham, and the main vessel traffic affected is salmon tenders with federal permits and Amendment 80 trawlers seeking a shorter path to offload yellowfin sole that deteriorates rapidly.

Council member John Henderschedt made the motion for action, which passed unanimously.

Currently, vessels without federal fishing permits, including barges, can transit in the walrus protection area, and smaller vessels participating only in state-waters fisheries can travel even closer to Round Island, because they are allowed in state waters, or three miles or less from shore.

Overall, vessel traffic adjacent to the Island could decrease, because industry representatives said that they would direct tenders — currently allowed to travel in state waters — to stay three miles away.

The other alternatives analyzed would have maintained the current protections including a 35-nautical mile diameter area rather than creating one or both of the corridors, or resulted in a larger buffer around Round Island. Industry representatives said the large buffer zone would make navigation more difficult, and potentially more dangerous.

During public testimony, industry generally supported the changes, although two residents of the region opposed the action, citing concerns for the walrus populations.

Frank Logusak, from the Qayassiq Walrus Commission and the Togiak Traditional Council, said he felt that the council was not adequately protecting walrus.

Logusak also talked about specific concerns with the noise from vessels in the area, but council members noted that vessel traffic they have no control over creates noise, not just fishing vessels.

Bering Sea canyons

The council also took a step toward future action to protect corals in Pribilof Canyon.

Henderschedt made a motion to develop a purpose and need statement for protecting corals in the Pribilof Canyon and adjacent slopes. That’s generally the first step in analysis of potential options for changing fishery management to enact such protections.

The Pribilof Canyon is thought to have a lower coral density than certain areas in the Aleutians, which are already protected, but a higher density than other parts of the Bering Sea slope.

However, the council also indicated that it would not take further action until after research planned for the coming summer is completed, and shows a better understanding of the Bering Sea canyons and corals. Members of industry also want to see the research before considering any new protections.

A model from the Alaska Fisheries Science Center provides likely locations of corals, but it does not have very much information about coral density. Work is planned this summer to use a camera to confirm where the coral is, and how much is there, and the council Advisory Panel had recommended waiting on any action until that research was done.

The council’s ecosystem committee, however, supported drafting a purpose and need statement, and Marine Conservation Alliance Executive Director Merrick Burden said that seemed appropriate and helpful for where the council is in the process.

Environmental groups, however, had requested that the council take action at this meeting, and suggested protecting more than just Pribilof Canyon.

Eventually, those asking for protections have said they’d like to see less fishing impacts to the canyons.

Oceana’s Jon Warrenchuck asked the council to also look at protecting sponges, and to consider the role both play as fisheries habitat.

The Alaska Federation of Natives also passed a resolution in 2012 calling for protections of certain parts of the Bering Sea.

The council began working on the Bering Sea canyons issues at its June 2013 meeting in Juneau, and held a public workshop in the issue in Seattle this February.

Five-year review of Amendment 80 continues

The council also heard testimony and a report on its five-year review of the Amendment 80 program.

The Amendment 80 program is the rationalized trawl fishery in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands for non-pollock groundfish species. Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the council must review such programs at least every five years. The review looks at a variety of topics in how the fishery has changed since fishing privileges were allocated. Another version of the report will be presented at the council meeting in October or December.

Marcus Hartley, from Northern Economics, did much of the review. Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s commercial fishing division also did a chapter on safety, which was presented by Jennifer Lincoln.

04/17/2014 - 9:14am