By Shannon Carroll
This month, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) wrapped up its final meeting of 2016 by pulling the plug on the Gulf of Alaska Trawl Bycatch Management Program. Citing an impasse in discussions between the State of Alaska and members of the trawl and processing sectors, the Council passed a motion tabling further action on the agenda item. The program, which has been under development for several years, was designed to provide groundfish fishermen with the “tools” to harvest target species while operating under reduced halibut and Chinook bycatch limits.
From the beginning of the Walker administration, the State of Alaska and the groundfish sector differed over the whether a catch share-type program was the right tool for the job. After a contentious meeting in Kodiak this past June, AMCC was optimistic that a middle ground – one that would bring greater stability to the groundfish sector while also addressing community concerns regarding past catch share programs – could be reached. Nonetheless, members of the Council likened the current impasse to being stuck on a sandbar, and in a 8-3 vote decided that it was better to take a step back from the proposed program.
Despite tabling the action, the Council initiated several discussion papers involving the Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery. These analyses will evaluate, among other things, modifying season start dates and sea lion closures in the groundfish trawl fishery, current protections and stock information for Tanner crab, and the hurdles to implementing abundance-based halibut bycatch management in the Gulf of Alaska. While AMCC sees value in these efforts, we remain hopeful that the Council will continue working towards a comprehensive management structure that fits the unique characteristics of the Gulf of Alaska.
Looking beyond the Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery, and into 2017, AMCC will continue to engage on issues at the Council that affect the sustainability of federal fisheries and impact the next generation of fishermen. At the February meeting in Seattle, the Council’s abundance-based halibut bycatch working group will be hosting a workshop to update and gather input on its effort to develop an abundance index for halibut. While this process has proven more complicated than we initially expected, AMCC continues to support moving towards a policy that establishes halibut bycatch caps based on the abundance of the stock. The Council will likely review the working group’s efforts during its April meeting in Anchorage. Also during the February meeting, the Council will hear recommendations from the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ Committee. These recommendations stem from the 20-year review of the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ program.
Finally, the Council will continue work on the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP)—a tool that will hopefully lead to a more comprehensive understanding of the Bering Sea ecosystem and its relationship to Council management actions. The Council recently appointed members to the Bering Sea Ecosystem Team, which will be the lead on developing the FEP. The team is expected to report to the Ecosystem Committee in February, and to the Council in April.
AMCC continues to champion the Council’s efforts to implement ecosystem-based measures through the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan. We greatly appreciate the work that has gone into the FEP development thus far and look forward to ensuring that the FEP includes defined ecosystem-level goals and measurable objectives and outcomes.
Shannon Carroll is AMCC’s Fisheries Policy Director. He can be reached at 907.277.5357 or via email.