Observer plan adjusted; charter halibut purchases proposed

Fishing vessels between 40 and 57.5 feet in length will carry marine observers on a trip-by-trip basis next year under a change recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The council took action on the 2015 annual deployment plan, or ADP, for the marine observer program, which places someone onboard commercial fishing vessels to count and sample the catch.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NFMS, implemented the revised observer program in 2013. Each year, the council has asked for adjustments to improve the information it collects and how it affects Alaska’s fishing fleet.

In previous years, the smaller vessels carried an observer for 60 days at a time, while larger vessels, and all trawlers in the partial coverage category, carried observers for one fishing trip at a time. Smaller vessels, however, said that carrying an observer for 60 days at a time was too burdensome.

During a presentation, NMFS staff also said that changing to the trip selection pool would help adjust the costs and meet target coverage rates for all vessels.

The motion, which was made by council member Bill Tweit and received a unanimous yes vote, also called for a 12 percent coverage rate for the smaller vessels, and 24 percent coverage for the larger vessels, which is what the agency had included in its ADP.

The council also recommended that if a small vessel is selected twice and doesn’t have life raft space or bunk space, it receive a conditional release for the third trip, and that vessels participating in the electronic monitoring pilot project not be subject to observer coverage.

The council motion also called for analysis of the life raft conditional release, and possibly sunsetting that allowance.

As was allowed this year, the council suggested that Pacific cod trawlers in the Bering Sea be allowed to opt-in to the full coverage program.

The council also agreed to a motion proposed by council member Craig Cross that is intended to help the freezer longline fleet have a larger pool of lead observers.

Observer providers and members of that fleet testified about the issue. This year, some boats were docked because there weren’t enough lead observers available. Observer providers said that while they pay well, lead observers generally leave for lifestyle change, sometimes taking a pay cut to do so, so it was a hard problem to solve. The vessels are often at sea for 30 days at a time, meaning that an observer is also on board for that duration.

The council’s motion asked industry to participate in a work group to develop solution, and for the agency to look at changes to the training and deployment requirements that could help address the issue. The council also asked NMFS to figure out what changes are needed to allow lead observers for trawl vessels to work on freezer longliners.

Cross — who manages two freezer longliners — said that his research confirmed what the council heard.

That carried with one objection, from council member Duncan Fields, who said it didn’t go far enough, and that it might be prudent for the council to consider an emergency regulation change.

“We were told this was going to be a problem,” Fields said. “We were told again it was going to be a problem. We initiated a discussion paper. And now it’s a problem.”

Observer lawsuit

The council also heard an update on the lawsuit regarding the observer program.

NMFS is working on a court-ordered supplemental environmental assessment regarding the bycatch data that comes out of its marine observer program at reduced coverage levels, with a draft expected in May.

The revised observer program was implemented by the agency in 2013. It was intended to increase the statistical reliability of data collected through the observer program, address cost inequality among fishery participants and expand observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries, such as halibut longline vessels, according to a summary from the agency.

In December 2012, The Boat Company, a nonprofit that operates marine tours in Southeast, along with fishing opportunity and conservation education, sued federal fisheries managers in Alaska U.S. District Court in Anchorage, asserting that the revised program does not provide adequate information about bycatch for federal managers to properly manage the fishery.

Judge Russel Holland found that NMFS did not account for whether it would lose data quality after learning that higher costs would reduce the amount of observer days at sea by more than half compared to what was originally planned, and required a supplemental environmental assessment, or EA, looking at that issue.

During his report, NMFS Assistant Regional Administrator Glenn Merrill said a draft of the EA will be released May 8, 2015, with opportunity for the council’s observer advisory committee to review it at its May meeting. The public and the council will also have the opportunity to comment on the draft, and a final EA will be released in October 2015, he said.

Holland did not require any immediate changes to the observer program and found in favor of NMFS on other aspects of the lawsuit.

The agency is appealing the decision, however, and a timeline for that process was set Oct. 7.

Under that timeline, the federal managers are expected to file an opening brief by Jan. 14, 2015, and the answering brief from The Boat Company is due Feb. 13.

Council also acts on charter halibut proposal

The council unanimously agreed to initiate an analysis of a program that could change how the charter halibut industry purchases quota from the commercial fleet.

Currently, charter operators must lease quota individually if they wish to do so. The analysis will look at how the charter sector might buy it as a pool through a recreational quota entity, or RQE, and use the purchased quota to adjust the regulations for guided halibut anglers in an entire region.

Council member Ed Dersham, the recreational fishing representative on the council, made the motion for action after the council reviewed a discussion paper on the issue.

The council’s advisory panel had recommended forming a committee to discuss the issue further, but the council’s action instead directs staff to do an analysis of a recreational quota entity structure that could purchase and hold quota on behalf of the industry. That’s the first step toward possible action, although the analysis will come back for review several times before the council votes to authorize the pooled purchases — or opts not to do so.

The analysis will look at one entity for both Area 2C and 3A, or Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, or separate entities for the two areas. It will also include a look at various restrictions on transfers and the types of quota that RQEs could purchase.

The analysis also includes an alternative that would result in retiring latent licenses in the charter sector.

Dersham’s motion came after the council heard testimony from the charter industry in favor of moving forward, and from others raising concerns about the program

Charter industry representatives said that shared quota could help adjust the management measures each year, and provide more stability for the sector.

Commercial representatives were hesitant about the idea, and said they’d rather see how the catch sharing and guided angler fish, or GAF, program work out first.

This summer, commercial halibut quota was used in conjunction with more than 40 charter licenses. For a client to retain additional halibut beyond the limit, the operator they were fishing with had to have already leased the commercial quota through the GAF program.

During staff tasking, the council agreed to form a workgroup to assist with developing ideas for analysis. Member John Henderschedt of Seattle noted that the workgroup is intended to help come up with ideas — not debate the basic idea of the proposal, as the council has agreed to move forward on that.

11/23/2016 - 3:00pm