Halibut bycatch heads menu for council in Dutch Harbor

Graphic by Kathryn Beers

A variety of legal requirements and public pressures will weigh on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council when it convenes Sept. 28 in Dutch Harbor.

From Pribilof Island blue king crab to the Southeast salmon troll fishery with Gulf of Alaska halibut bycatch in between, the council has plenty on its plate for the weeklong meeting.

The amended Magnuson-Stevens Act is driving the council on a proposed rebuilding plan for Pribilof blue king crab — scheduled for a final action at this meeting — and the need to update the salmon fishery management plan.

The legally mandated Pribilof blue king crab and salmon actions will draw plenty of attention from the affected user groups, but the public spotlight figures to shine brightest on the council decision concerning halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska.

No issue has been more controversial over the past two months than the halibut catch sharing plan draft rule released July 22 by National Marine Fisheries Service. An extended public comment period ended Sept. 21.

The plan, or CSP, reflects the council action of October 2008 to divide the annual halibut harvest as a percentage between charter and commercial sectors, set default bag limits tied to abundance levels and provide for charter captains to lease halibut pounds from commercial fishermen.

Both commercial and charter sectors have pointed to bycatch of halibut in the Gulf by trawlers as a contributing factor to declines in exploitable biomass.

Unlike the regulatory process over years to craft and then draft the halibut CSP, the action can take effect as soon as 2012 as part of the regular quota process for groundfish if the council chooses to reduce halibut bycatch in the Gulf.

The trawl sector, between the deepwater and shallow water fisheries, may take up to 2,000 metric tons, or 4.4 million pounds, of halibut as it prosecutes the Pacific cod, pollock, rockfish, arrowtooth flounder, rex sole and other groundfish fisheries.

The hook-and-line sector is allowed to take up to 300 metric tons, or 661,000 pounds, of halibut each year. When the caps are reached for a sector or for a season, the fishery is closed. Under current management, the hook-and-line fishery has been closed because of reaching its halibut cap just once since 2004; various trawl fisheries have been closed under status quo for every year between 2000 and 2011.

The council is contemplating options for 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent reductions in the amount of halibut allocated to trawlers and longliners in the Gulf.

Retrospective analysis of the trawl and longline fisheries under the proposed reductions in halibut allocation show potential foregone first wholesale revenue averaging anywhere from $2.32 million to $9.9 million per year.

Analysis from biologists with the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which sets the harvest quotas for the U.S. and Canadian coasts, suggest that reduced halibut mortality from Gulf bycatch would add yield to the commercial sector on more than a pound-for-pound basis, and that female spawning biomass would benefit at more than twice the rate of any reduction in trawl bycatch.

The IPHC analysis also stated that halibut migration was not built into the model, and therefore “downstream” effects on Southeast and Canada were likely underestimated in terms of both economic and biological benefits to the halibut sector.

Pribilof blue king crab rebuilding

The council was notified in December 2009 that the Pribilof blue king crab stock, which has been closed to directed fishing since 1999, is not on target to be rebuilt by 2014 and a revised rebuilding plan must be adopted before the 2011-12 fishing season.

Alternatives under consideration would expand existing closures areas and include flatfish trawl fisheries, and Pacific cod pot and hook-and-line fisheries to protect the remaining adult biomass of Pribilof blue king crab.

The proposed closures would expand on the existing no-trawl zone around St. Paul and St. George. One alternative is to include an Alaska Department of Fish and Game area also closed to crab fishing, expanding the no-trawl zone to the northeast.

Other possible closure areas would be throughout the range of the Pribilof blue king crab, nearly twice the size of the current no-trawl zone, or using a triggered closure tied to crab bycatch. Analysis shows the trigger would have been hit just once, in 2007, but if it were apportioned by gear type at least one sector would have faced a closure in every year between 2003 and 2007.

Salmon FMP

Updating the salmon fishery management plan, or FMP, is somewhat of a housekeeping measure for the council, which has deferred management to the ADFG since 1979.

The council has selected a preliminary preferred alternative to remove Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries from the federal FMP, and add language reflecting the MSA revised in 2007.

The Southeast Alaska troll fishery would remain in the federal FMP because it is managed in conjunction with Canada under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

The most important requirement is to establish in the salmon FMP that the state’s escapement goals and in-season management of salmon harvests satisfy national standards to avoid overfishing while achieving optimum yield.

The revised MSA requires the council to set an annual catch limit, or ACL, for each species managed under a FMP. Because of the salmon lifecycle and uncertainty of returns, setting a preseason harvest level or ACL is not appropriate for salmon.

The Journal will provide coverage of the meeting as it unfolds on our website, www.alaskajournal.com.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

09/22/2011 - 11:19am