Steller sea lions and crab to be discussed

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which meets Oct. 3-9 in Anchorage, is poised to act on a vessel replacement plan, as well as discuss Steller sea lions and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab and groundfish fisheries. Halibut management and observation will also be on the table.

The council is slated for final action on a vessel replacement program for freezer longline licenses authorized for Pacific cod in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

The preliminary preferred action, which is supported by the Freezer Longline Coalition, would allow catcher-processor vessels to have a maximum length overall of up to 220 feet long. The licenses that also have a pot Pacific cod endorsement would have to surrender that endorsement in order to take advantage of the new size limits, and would have 36 months to make a decision one way or the other.

According to the council’s regulatory impact review, 37 licenses could be affected by the change, most for vessels currently between 124 and 174 feet.

The replacement program is primarily meant to address safety, said Freezer Longline Coalition Executive Director Kenny Down. The larger sizes are meant to make new vessels financially feasible.

“The current size limitations don’t allow you to build a vessel that’s efficient enough to cover the cost of construction, so it’s a fleet that’s going to continue to age without replacement without action by council,” Down said.

The other alternatives allow new vessels as long as 150 feet, with certain conditions.

Down said the increased boat size could increase revenue by about 20 percent for a freezer longliner. The financial benefit would come largely from improved processing capabilities on the vessels, Down said. Currently, various fish components can’t be processed onboard. Down said that skate wings, which are sold to retail markets in Asia and domestically, and various cod parts – like livers, heads and stomachs – are potential revenue sources on new vessels.

The target species for the freezer longliners are Pacific cod, sablefish and Greeland turbot, but vessels also retain incidental catch of skates, rockfish, arrowtooth flounder and pollock.

Larger boats or more powerful engines won’t be able to catch more fish, because the longline vessels catch fish by hook, Down said.

The economic benefits are needed to outweigh the cost of vessel replacement, which is substantial. Vessel loans are typically 10 to 15 years, Down said.

“The payback on building a new vessel is very, very long term,” Down said.

The Coast Guard also supports the replacement plan.

Newer vessels will make the fleet safer. Older vessels tend to have more fatal injuries associated with them, Down said, and the current freezer longliners are about 39 years old, on average.

Shipyards in Alaska and Washington could also benefit if new boats are purchased.

“I think the shipyards in those areas are very excited about the prospects of the replacement of the freezer longline fleet,” Down said.

Steller sea lion review

The council is also scheduled to talk about Steller sea lions.

A 2010 National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, biological opinion concluded that removals of Pacific cod and Atka mackerel in the western Aleutian Islands were likely to jeopardize food sources for endangered Steller sea lions and adversely modify their critical habitat.

From that conclusion, NMFS imposed wide-ranging closures to all cod and mackerel fishing in an area half the size of Texas in the farthest west Aleutians, in addition to other restrictions. The State of Alaska and a coalition of fishing groups sued to overturn the biological opinion, of BiOp, and closures. Alaska U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess allowed the rule to stand but ordered NMFS to prepare an environmental impact statement to support the action, requiring it to be complete in two years and demanding quarterly progress reports.

The EIS discussion by the council will likely center on the recently released independent review of the biological opinion. NMFS contracted with the Center for Independent Experts to analyze the BiOp, with all three reviewers concluding the study was based on flawed science.

How the CIE opinion will trickle into management is still unknown. The council is set to talk about the approach to the EIS, which was ordered by a judge.

Larry Cotter, from the council Steller sea lion mitigation committee, said the EIS is supposed to look at all available information, which could include the new CIE opinions.

“I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what the EIS concludes,” Cotter said.

He said there are several possibilities for how the EIS will play out. The judge ordering the EIS only mandated that the assessment consider the Aleutians and the Bering Sea, but didn’t mention the Gulf of Alaska. The EIS now could conclude that the Gulf needs to be considered as well.

“And it may be that they conclude that the biological opinion erred, and that jeopardy and adverse modification do not exist, and then we’ll see what happens,” Cotter said.

If the EIS concludes that the biological opinion erred, Cotter said it’s hard to know what will happen. If the opinion is struck down, it is unknown what would replace it or how long that would take. Burgess allowed the current management to remain.

Beyond the EIS, any direct action resulting from the CIE study is up in the air.

“The big question is whether the NMFS will do anything, and if so, what are they going to do,” Cotter said.

The council could advise NMFS to dismantle the rule and develop a new biological opinion, just discuss the EIS process, or take a different course of action entirely, Cotter said.

“What will be frustrating is if nothing happens,” Cotter said.

In a letter to Jane Lubchenco, head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Down asked NMFS to withdraw the biological opinion.

But Down said he doesn’t expect any direction action from the council based on the independent review.

The Freezer Longline Coalition, which had prime cod grounds with a valuable export market closed by the rule, was among the groups who sued NMFS. The case was appealed to the 9th Circuit Court.

Crab quota to be adopted

Crab and groundfish management and research for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands will also be part of the meeting.

Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay king crab quotas are due to be announced Oct. 1, and approved as part of the meeting. On the groundfish side, the council will adopt proposed catch specifications.

The council will consider initial reviews of proposed regulatory amendments for management of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands king and tanner crabs. Council documents discuss changing certain time requirements for communities’ right of first refusal for processor quota shares, as well as defining active participation requirements for acquisition and use of owner shares.

The council will also look at regulations for crab economic data reporting, review the tanner crab rebuilding plan, and other related issues.

Research on how crab and fish populations may expand northward into subarctic regions has been under way for several years, with some preliminary results showing that the species present are not commercially viable. The council will review a discussion paper on those efforts, which also looks at the potential of opening the area to bottom-trawling.

11/11/2016 - 1:31pm