Trawl shutdown leads NFMS to allocate extra chinook bycatch

The National Marine Fisheries Service has allocated an additional 1,600 chinook salmon to be used as bycatch for the Gulf of Alaska non-pollock, non-rockfish groundfish trawl fleet.

The year-round Gulf of Alaska non-pollock, non-rockfish fishery had to shut down on May 2, having exceeded its allocation of 2,700 chinook salmon bycatch. Somewhere between 13,000 to 15,000 metric tons of groundfish would have been left in the water in the second part of the season, approximately $4.6 million in ex-vessel value and $11.3 million in first wholesale value.

The closure caused great concern for the fishermen and trawlers in Kodiak. The Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, and the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative requested emergency action from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which passed the emergency order at its June meeting in Sitka during staff tasking.

The council voted in favor of the emergency order 10-1, with council member Kenny Down voting against.

NOAA divides the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fishery into several sectors, with each regulated differently. Groundfish includes pollock, rockfish, and assorted flatfish like arrowtooth flounder and Atka mackerel. Fleets are divided into Western and Central Gulf of Alaska.

The pollock industry has had chinook bycatch limits since 2013, established under Amendment 93 to the Gulf of Alaska fishery management plan. The non-pollock fleets, including both rockfish and non-rockfish, didn’t have chinook bycatch limit until 2015, when Amendment 97 instituted a limit of 7,500; the non-rockfish fleet received 2,700 of that amount.

The emergency order is stopgap measure until the North Pacific council can change the fishery management plan to fit to new information gathered from the National Marine Fisheries Service’s restructured observer program that began in 2013.

“New data has shown that previous estimates of PSC for this sector were not representative of recent PSC use,” NOAA stated in a release.

The new data shows the bycatch limit to be undersized and the high bycatch in 2015 to be a freak occurrence.

According to the North Pacific council, the bycatch in the Western Gulf of Alaska non-pollock, non-rockfish sector triggered the closure due to an unusually high bycatch of 1,056 in the beginning of 2015, nearly a 10 times the maximum usage of any year between 2007 and 2011.

The 2,700-salmon limit itself is approximately 8 percent greater than the estimated average annual amount of chinook salmon used by the fleet between 2007 and 2011. In three of the last five years, the sector caught more than 2,700 chinook.

Julie Bonney, executive director of Alaska Groundfish Databank, said her Kodiak-based members appreciate the timeliness of the emergency order and NOAA’s response. The cod season, a main target for the fleet, starts Sept. 1. Restoring chinook to the fleet’s bycatch bank was necessary before it was too late to fish under the new limits.

“They’ve been working on it full speed since June,” said Bonney. “It was really a heavy lift by the agency.”

The new information on the fleet’s bycatch rates calmed some conservation fears. Conservation groups including the Alaska Marine Conservation Council expressed support for the emergency order.

According to new data, the emergency order will not bring the overall chinook bycatch even close to the maximum amount of 40,000 that, if exceeded, can trigger an Endangered Species Act consultation because of the presence of Pacific Northwest stocks.

“We’ll be well under the 40,000 limit, and most likely under the 32,500 cap in the Gulf,” said Bonney.

The council will review a regulatory package for changing bycatch protocol for the Gulf of Alaska at its next meeting in October and the package will likely be voted on in December.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 11:56am