Halibut charter, bycatch issues will get more time

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A pair of contentious halibut measures are on hold until at least 2013 following the meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Dutch Harbor.

National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for implementing the halibut catch sharing plan approved by the council in October 2008, asked for more input before moving toward publishing the final rule.

The issues raised by NMFS Sept. 28 likely can’t be addressed until the February council meeting at the earliest, meaning the catch sharing plan that would split the harvest as a percentage between commercial and charter sectors won’t take effect as previously planned in 2012.

The catch sharing plan, or CSP, would have also set default bag limits based on halibut abundance and provided for charter skippers to lease pounds from the commercial sector.

NMFS has been instructed by the council to provide more clarification at the December meeting in Anchorage on exactly what information it needs.

The intent appears to be to support the catch sharing plan as constructed by the council, not to reopen for debate the more controversial aspects of the plan such as the percentage split between sectors or default bag limits that would restrict anglers to one fish per day at low levels of abundance in the central Gulf of Alaska.

Anglers in Southeast have been on a one-fish limit since 2009, and were put under a 37-inch maximum size limit in 2011 by the International Pacific Halibut Commission to hold them within their allocation.

Any substantial changes to the program structure as published in the Federal Register raises conflicts with the Administrative Procedures Act and would essentially force the council to start over on an issue that has dominated its time for the last 18 years.

What the council will do in December is provide guidance to the IPHC on how to manage the charter sector within its guideline harvest level, or GHL, absent the plan being in place.

Under a 1923 treaty signed by the U.S. and Canada, the IPHC has ultimate authority on management measures to hold sectors within their allocations.

NMFS told the council that it was best equipped to provide guidance on technical issues such as accounting for fish leased by the charter sector from commercial quota shareholders, management measures at low levels of abundance and a need for economic analysis.

Linda Behnken, executive director of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said NMFS could have resolved the issues that it sent back to the council. Most notably, she said, the issues of accounting for leased fish, known as GAF, and management at low abundance.

The GAF issue was flagged by the council after a draft review in October 2010, and the management matrix and the council record clearly reflect times of low abundance were anticipated, Behnken said. Further, the calls for more economic analysis miss the fundamental point that the resource is in decline and conservation measures are needed.

“What you’re saying is, the resource is in decline and instead of expecting everyone to reduce their harvest to protect the resource, we’re going to stop and study economic impacts and allow overharvest,” Behnken said. “That’s never been Alaska’s strategy in the past, and I think it’s a dangerous trend. If the charter sector is saying they don’t think they should have to share in conserving the resource, then that’s what they should say.”

The council will be informed by the IPHC survey data scheduled to be released Nov. 30, which should indicate whether declining trends in legal-size halibut are continuing.

The number of halibut in the Gulf is at record levels, but the growth rate has steeply declined to levels not seen since the 1920s and leaving fewer amounts larger than the legal size of 32 inches.

In Southeast, known as Area 2C, the GHL is already at its lowest possible level of 788,000 pounds for the charter sector. In the central Gulf, or Area 3A, the GHL is 3.65 million pounds and the declining biomass of exploitable halibut has not yet triggered a 15 percent stepdown under the current management.

If the exploitable biomass declines by 2 million pounds in 3A, that would result in a charter GHL of 3.1 million pounds. The 3A charter sector has only exceeded its allocation once, in 2007, but it was greater than 3.1 million pounds each year from 2000 to 2008.

The council could recommend restrictions such as one of two fish be less than 32 inches, or no retention by skippers and crew, if a stepdown in the GHL is triggered based on IPHC survey data and Alaska Department of Fish and Game projects the 3A charter sector to go over 3.1 million pounds.

While there will be some suspense revolving around the 3A survey data, the charter sector would seem unlikely to have its allocation changed in Southeast based on the low levels of abundance.

However, they will attempt to get some relief from the 37-inch size rule, which appears on track to hold them some 350,000 pounds under their allocation this year. This will be the first year since the GHL was put in place that the Southeast charter sector will be under its allocation. From 2004 top 2010, the Southeast charter sector exceeded its allocation by a cumulative 3.77 million pounds.

The commercial harvest in Southeast this year was just 2.33 million pounds.

Southeast Alaska Guides Organization Executive Director Heath Hilyard said he’s forming a panel of his members to brings management ideas to the council in December that the charter sector thinks would hold them under their allocation without being as disruptive as the maximum size rule has proven to be.

The idea of an annual bag limit, which would allow a trophy-fish opportunity, is being discussed, Hilyard said. The annual bag limit has not been used as a management measure in the past, though, and as a regulatory matter or for the purposes of projecting charter harvest it could be problematic.

“We have to come up with some proposals to walk forward and get some of the math done and what can we live with that can be an improvement or not increased damage to our sector while keeping us within our GHL,” Hilyard said.

Bycatch caps to be amended

The issue of halibut bycatch by trawlers and longliners in the Gulf of Alaska was also put on a lengthier timeline as the council decided to amend the fishery management plan, or FMP, rather than reducing the bycatch limit in December through its annual harvest specification process.

The options under consideration were for 5 percent, 10 percent or 15 percent reductions to halibut PSC for the trawl and hook-and-line sectors. The trawl sector is allocated 2,000 metric tons, or 4.4 million pounds, annually. The hook-and-line sector is allocated 300 metric tons, or 661,000 pounds per year. The PSC limits haven’t been revised for some 25 years, and the council was facing strong pressure to act.

Members Duncan Fields and Sam Cotten expressed some disappointment the council was not moving toward reducing PSC limits in December, but in the end the motion passed without objection.

Member Dan Hull of Anchorage, who made the motion, stated his intent was to perform initial review of the amendment package at the February 2012 meeting, with potential for final action as soon as April but by June at the latest. Final action in April could allow the PSC reductions to take effect at the beginning of 2013. Final action in June may force mid-season implementation in 2013.

One of the significant changes to the alternatives under consideration was breaking out the hook-and-line catcher-processor sector from the catcher-vessel sector. The new alternative will analyze 5-10-15 percent reductions for C-P, C-V and the trawl sector. Analysis shows that the C-P sector has achieved significant savings in halibut bycatch in the last few years, and that severe cuts in halibut PSC allocation would be needed to see any benefit to the stock based on the already low discard mortality rate for the C-P hook-and-line sector.

Another amendment to Hull’s motion from John Henderschedt of Seattle would add discussion of the benefits and impacts of modifying both seasonal and fishery complex apportionment of halibut PSC limits. Currently, halibut PSC is allocated by season and between deep and shallow water complexes. Public comment from the trawl sector indicated more flexibility in managing PSC limits would help efforts to reduce halibut bycatch.

Fields objected to the expansion of analysis into revising the fisheries management structure, but Henderschedt said simply reducing PSC limits is one of the cruder tools available to the council and isn’t the best way to achieve a higher standard of fleet behavior that would lead to more meaningful reductions in bycatch.

Public comment from the trawl fleet, which was supported by the analysis, indicated that the race to the bycatch cap would only get worse under reduced PSC limits.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

10/05/2011 - 1:47pm