North Pacific council keeps up work on Gulf bycatch plan

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Portland, Ore., Feb. 1-9 to discuss changes to Gulf of Alaska bycatch management, Bering Sea yellowfin sole management, and halibut management framework.

The council is one of eight regional fishery councils oversees federal fisheries within three to 200 miles from the coast.

The council will only take final action on two items. The first will set overfishing limits and acceptable biological catches for the Norton Sound red king crab fishery. The second, more involved, will make changes to observer coverage requirements on Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands catcher vessel owners and operators in order to reduce their financial burden.

The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands limited entry trawl catcher vessel fleet has requirements to document halibut bycatch on an individual vessel level. Some vessels, however, are still in the partial coverage category, and even if selected for voluntary full coverage must pay both a partial observer fee and a full coverage fee.

Observers employed by the National Marine Fisheries Service live onboard vessels and monitor the amount, size and species of bycatch taken.

“Through this action, the council is seeking to provide relief to trawl catcher vessels owners who have voluntarily paid for full observer coverage in addition to the partial observer coverage fee in order to better manage bycatch while complying with existing Observer Program regulations,” reads the council’s report.

In an ongoing method to streamline halibut management, the council will also review its Scientific and Statistical Committee’s report on halibut management framework.

Halibut are co-managed by the council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, or IPHC. The council regulates halibut bycatch and sets the harvest split as a percentage between commercial and charter fishermen in the Central Gulf of Alaska and Southeast.

The IPHC sets the overall harvest level among regulatory areas from Northern California to the Bering Sea, which includes the directed harvest, bycatch, wastage and sport take by both charter and unguided anglers.

The co-management has proven problematic, creating a situation in which more halibut are taken as bycatch than by the actual halibut fishermen in the face of a shrinking supply of legally harvestable fish.

In an effort to reduce this bycatch and provide for halibut fishermen, the council is reviewing ways to better cooperate with the international commission. The halibut management framework looks to identify each governing body’s scientific methods, fill gaps between council and commission process where the methods are not consistent, and potentially create a loose collaborative process to improve communication channels.

The council will also review a discussion paper for the Gulf of Alaska’s groundfish fisheries. 

The discussion paper includes several alternatives to lower bycatch in the Gulf. Creating some kind of vessel and processor cooperative system in the Gulf is the council’s preferred alternative. Cooperatives are thought to share information about high bycatch areas than individual vessels, theoretically leading to lower overall bycatch rates.

In the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries, groundfish fishermen are encouraged to belong to a cooperative rather than fish alone; the council engineers the cooperatives to incentivize bycatch reduction by giving them more flexible management than individual vessels.

Vessels that choose not to participate in an incentive plan agreement through cooperatives receive a smaller bycatch allocation than those who do.

Other options would create a system of shoreside processor allocations based on fishery dependency, among other factors. Some would install safeguards against overconsolidation of groundfish and bycatch quota.

Shoreside processors, the lifeblood of many Gulf of Alaska coastal communities, are concerned that bycatch management could limit the amount of groundfish they process by closing fisheries before the full harvest is taken.

Preventing overconsolidation of the fishing fleets is of particular concern to Kodiak, which was particularly devastated by the rationalization of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery. The fleet shrunk by two-thirds in the first season as quota was consolidated to fewer vessels and some 1,000 crew jobs were wiped out.

The paper also includes options to allow trawlers to fish at slower speeds. Shorter seasons for certain groundfish lead trawlers to race to catch as much as possible, lowering the caution in regards to bycatch.

In several of the options, the council would require 100 percent observer coverage for all Gulf of Alaska trawlers. In the case of catcher-processors, the council could require two observers per vessel as is in place for catcher-processors in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fisheries.

A discussion paper on the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands yellowfin sole fishery will determine whether the fishery will be reserved for a predetermined group of historical participants.

In the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the yellowfin sole fishery stands as one of the last remaining fisheries without a comprehensive limited entry system. The paper examines the effects of creating a limited entry system for the offshore yellowfin sole fishery in this area.

The closure of the area to new participants has both economic and environmental implications. In 2015, several yellowfin sole vessels told the council new entries to the fishery were downsizing their historical harvest rates and contributing to a greater halibut bycatch level. Yellowfin sole, a groundfish, has one of the highest rates of halibut bycatch in the North Pacific.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

01/27/2016 - 3:31pm