Council to focus on halibut bycatch, new P-cod fishery

Halibut and cod in the Bering Sea and Aleutians Islands will be the focus for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its upcoming meeting, with some attention to the simmering issue of national monument designations that are chafing Alaska politicians and communities.

The council will hold their first meeting of 2015 in Seattle Feb. 2-10. The major issues are halibut bycatch and accounting, and Pacific cod management in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, or BSAI.

The council will adopt catch limits for Norton Sound red king crab, review the performance and future of BSAI crab rationalization, and hear from stakeholders in a rejected motion to establish the Aleutian Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The issue driving current regulations is halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The Bering Sea is home to lucrative groundfish fisheries, which take a halibut as accidental catch in pursuit of their directed fish, known as bycatch, and have limits of such halibut take totaling more than 8 million pounds. The groundfish fishery includes both pollock and flatfish species targeted by midwater and bottom trawl gear, respectively.

At the current projected harvest level, International Pacific Halibut Commission biologists estimate that 93 percent of all 2015 halibut removals in the Bering Sea would be from bycatch, not the directed halibut fishery. The six Alaskan council members requested an emergency 33 percent halibut bycatch reduction from the Department of Commerce, which is still considering the request.

To that end, several of the council’s major issues focus on halibut. The council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee will present a study of total halibut removals and mortality. In 2014, the International Pacific Halibut Commission requested that council staff prepare a discussion paper on Pacific halibut removals, especially the mortality accounting methods for halibut under 26 inches in length, or U26 halibut. The commission believes the changes in halibut size-at-age, biology, and fishery selectivity need to be updated to better meet management objectives.

Halibut allocations do not currently respond to changes in projected U26 halibut mortality, which have a direct correlation to direct fishery yields. Most fisheries do account for all mortality and bycatch removals in their harvest policies, but the dual-management system governing halibut does not. Theoretically, better U26 accounting could allow for greater allocation power for the international commission.

The council will also review an initial draft of reduction in BSAI halibut bycatch, to be voted on in full in the council’s June meeting. The review considers proposals for each BSAI fleet, potentially reducing halibut bycatch limits by as much as 35 percent.

The options are like a mix and match menu. Each fleet, including the BSAI pollock trawl sector, Amendment 80 fleet (flatfish trawl catcher-processors), hook-and-line catcher-processors, and Community Development Quota groups could be potentially restricted to either 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, or 35 percent cuts from current halibut bycatch limits. Any combination of fleets and percentages could be possible.

The council also requested reviews of additional studies and measures on halibut bycatch levels and of halibut bycatch reductions on other species and management structures. These include a bycatch limit for the sablefish fishery, potential impacts of halibut bycatch on Bering Sea chinook and chum salmon, potential biomass-based bycatch limits, a flexibility program for the Amendment 80 fleet season and area closures, seasonal apportionment for the trawl limited fleet, halibut deck sorting programs, voluntary measures for halibut bycatch reduction, and incorporating bycatch into international commission halibut stock assessments.

To help small boat communities in Area 4CDE, the central Bering Sea surrounding the Pribilof Islands, the council will review several alternatives to develop the Pacific cod CDQ fishery in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands.

This would require an amendment to the fishery management plan, or FMP, for groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. The council is hoping to supplement ailing halibut fishermen in the area by encouraging a more profitable Pacific cod fishery. 

Current restrictions make Pacific cod are prohibitive for small boat fleets, which suffer economic hardship from sinking halibut allocations. Suggestions apply to vessels that do not exceed 46 feet in length. Possible measures include increasing the maximum retainable amount of Pacific cod from 20 percent of CDQ halibut landings to 100 percent, creating an CDQ limited license permit, or LLP, for small boats under which vessels would subject to a range of observer coverage from full to partial, or exempting small boats from the current LLP requirements.

Under the proposed management plan, the Aleutians Island Pacific cod directed fishing allowance will all be limited to catcher vessels and delivered to onshore processors west of 170 degrees longitude prior to either March 7 or March 15. Atka and Adak currently house only two processors in that area.

The council will also review a research on the efficiency of electronic monitoring for catch accounting on fixed gear vessels. The council has slated 2016 for the beginning stages of implementing an electronic monitoring system.

The current system calls for onboard observer monitoring, which can be costly for small boat vessels and is subject to human error. Electronic monitoring could potentially lower operating costs while providing greater accuracy for fisheries management.

Several stakeholders will present opposition to the council regarding the rejected Aleutians Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which would have closed off all federal waters along the Aleutians archipelago to oil and gas leasing, as well as restricted marine transportation and some commercial trawling.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration rejected the sanctuary nomination, which was submitted by Washington, D.C. conservation group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility with the help of retired University of Alaska professor and biologist Richard Steiner. Steiner says he hopes the president will declare the area a national monument through executive authority, which the president has done twice in the last week with the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve and areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Frank Kelty, the natural resources director of the city of Unalaska, and Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance, are preparing a white paper on the negative effects such a designation would have on the commercial fishing industry.

01/28/2015 - 1:58pm