Flatfish flexibility OK'd; Steller sea lion EIS not ready

Courtesy/NMFS

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took final action on several groundfish issues, and made preliminary moves toward additional changes in the future at its April 3 to 8 meeting in Anchorage.

The council agreed to provide Amendment 80 cooperatives and Community Development Quota entities with some flexibility in its flatfish harvest each year. In another action, the council decided that American Fisheries Act, or AFA, pollock vessel owners can rebuild or replace their vessels and still utilize Gulf of Alaska sideboards, subject to certain restrictions.

In both cases, the motions for action passed unanimously.

The council also agreed to move forward in considering splitting the Pacific cod total allowable catch, or TAC, in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. That will come back at a future meeting, and would mean that the TAC would be divided for the different areas. For now, the council’s action directed staff to study possible community impacts and protections if the TAC were split.

Council member John Henderschedt made the flatfish motion, which allows the fleet to exchange flathead sole, rock sole and yellowfin sole quota, as long as the catch of each remains below the total allowable catch, or TAC.

The council’s flatfish flexibility action was the similar to the Advisory Panel’s recommendation, adding a request asking for draft co-op reports each year so that the council can monitor how the exchanges are working and use that information in its TAC setting process.

Glenn Merrill of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region told the council that it would likely take some time for NMFS to enact the changes, as it will require altering the catch accounting system. It would be reasonable to expect that it to be in place for the October 2015 council meeting, he said, to impact the 2016 fishing season.

Council member Craig Cross made the vessel replacement motion.

The council’s action essentially selected a status quo option by bringing the regulations in-line with provisions in the Coast Guard reauthorization act that allowed vessels to be replaced.

A status quo option was essentially available to the council because of the Coast Guard act provisions.

The rebuilt vessels cannot exceed the maximum length overall, or MLOA, specified on the Gulf groundfish licenses. If a vessel exempt from GOA sideboard limitations is removed from the fishery, that exemption cannot be transferred to a new vessel. A sideboard limit restricts the amount of harvest available to vessels that fish mainly in one fishery, such as Bering Sea pollock, when they also have licenses for another fishery such as the Gulf of Alaska where quota is not assigned and the larger vessels would have an unfair advantage.

Alaska Groundfish Databank’s Julie Bonney spoke in favor of the preliminary preferred alternative, which is the one the council selected, and noted that her members included all three sectors — AFA vessels exempt from sideboard limitations, non-exempt AFA vessels, and other vessels operating in the Gulf that aren’t part of the AFA sector.

United Catcher Boats Executive Director Brent Paine also testified in support of that alternative. His organization represents 72 AFA vessels, he said.

For the TAC split, the council heard testimony about the need to protect communities in any action, and opted to request more information on that before deciding how to proceed.

Council member Cora Campbell, Alaska’s Fish and Game commissioner, made the motion for action. It was approved with no objections.

The discussion paper will evaluate the impacts of a Pacific cod directed fishing allowance in Areas 541 and 542 (far west Aleutians) to the catcher vessel sector, and regionalized delivery requirements to shoreside plants in the Aleutian Islands.

Such a fishery, as outlined in the motion, would have the same allocations as are currently available, and be based on abundance.

Henderschedt, the only council member to comment on the action, said he supported looking at community provisions, but would retain a focus on how realistic such a program was as it moves through the analysis phase. There could be difficulties in splitting a fishery into such a small piece, particularly given concerns with the cod resource, he said.

Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association spokesman Larry Cotter told the council that in that region, processing activity is vital to local communities.

Steller sea lion protections reviewed

After several hours of staff reports, questions and public testimony, the council stuck with the Advisory Panel’s preliminary preferred alternative for the new Steller sea lion environmental impact statement, or EIS, but did not release the draft document for public review.

Council member Bill Tweit’s motion, which passed without objection, also asked NMFS to provide more information on a new biological opinion before a final decision must be made.

The council had been presented with a range of alternatives, including the status quo and several that were considered less restrictive to Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands fishing, but the analysis did not provide any definitive information on what each alternative would mean for Steller sea lion populations.

The motion also said that the council felt that it was too early for public review of the draft EIS, given that some information was unavailable, and that it was too early to schedule a final decision on a preferred alternative.

The council’s action also asked NMFS to address the peer reviews of the 2010 biological opinion, and noted that the draft EIS relied on information that isn’t available to the public yet, including “in press” and “in preparation” scientific work.

The council’s action did not keep pace with the planned timeline, and council members said they did not intend to delay action beyond the court-ordered deadline of completing the EIS by March 2014, but wanted issues addressed before the document was approved for public review.

Sablefish and halibut issues discussed

Halibut and sablefish issues were also on the table.

Community Quota Entities are one step closer to purchasing quota share after the council selected a final preferred alternative that would allow those community groups, or CQEs, to purchase any size block of halibut and sablefish quota share.

Previously, those groups were limited to purchasing certain blocks.

Other existing restrictions on purchase, such as the total number of blocks a CQE can hold, will remain as-is.

Council member Duncan Fields, of Kodiak, brought forward the motion for action. It passed in a 10-1 vote, with council member Roy Hyder of Oregon voting against it.

During public testimony there was support from the Kodiak communities of Ouzinkie and Old Harbor for the council to take action. No one spoke in opposition.

A more restrictive alternative, allowing additional purchases but from fewer sources, had been considered in the Advisory Panel, but that body did not bring a recommendation forward, as it wound up with a 10-10 split on its motion.

Before CQEs can make a purchase, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, will have to make a final regulation.

The council agreed to have Bering Sea sablefish industry stakeholders work together on potential management approaches to increase yield, and asked to hear about those efforts in October.

That was similar to the AP’s recommendation, and also supported by industry.

Chad See, from the Freezer Longline Coalition, said a member of that group brought the issue forward several years ago, but that the group felt it would be premature for the council to select an alternative at the April meeting.

The council also agreed to send a letter to the International Pacific Halibut Commission supporting allowing fishermen with halibut IFQ to retain halibut when targeting sablefish with pots.

Scallops back on the table

Council member Nicole Kimball, who represented the State of Alaska as Commissioner Cora Campbell’s alternate, put forward a motion that carried with no objection, setting the 2013-14 scallop catch limit at 1.16 million pounds.

That was based on the AP and Scientific and Statistical Committee recommendations.

Kimball also said she supported the plan team’s request for a workshop on what to do about the limited information regarding some portions of the scallop stock, which would include a look at how other fisheries and regions handle biological reference points for stocks with limited data.

The action came after a report by council staff Diana Stram, who co-chairs the scallop plan team and talked about that body’s February meeting and general scallop management.

The state manages the scallop fishery, as most scallop beds are in both state and federal waters, and is responsible for setting the guideline harvest level, or GHL, for the fishery, although there are entry requirements for the state and federal fisheries.

The state program sunsets at the end of 2013, and the renewal effort has raised questions about its constitutionality. In prior hearings, it was stated that if the program isn’t renewed, the fishery could be shut down.

But at the council meeting, when Fields asked what could happen, both Stram and Kimball said the state would have several options, including setting separate GHLs for the state and federal waters, attempting to manage under the current program, or closing portions of the state waters.

The Department of Fish and Game requires 100 percent observer coverage on scallop boats, and the prior position of ADFG has been that such coverage makes the risk low for exceeding either the guideline harvest level or crab bycatch limits.

“There are options if the legislature doesn’t act,” Kimball said.

Transit corridor up for study

The council also looked at fixing an unintended consequence of an action taken to protect walrus populations on Round Island, part of the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary.

The action prevented certain vessels from transiting Round Island, but the requirement has made it difficult for federally permitted vessels to bring herring from Togiak seiners to processors in Dillingham or elsewhere.

The council asked staff to develop one or more alternatives to the existing transit corridor options in consultation with affected stakeholders. Industry participants, the appropriate agencies, the Walrus Commission, and others were expected to be included in that stakeholder group.

Henderschedt made the motion for action on that issue, and the council agreed without objection.

Updated: 
12/06/2016 - 12:12pm