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A King of Bristol Bay in Peril

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) met in Anchorage on October 3 - 11, 2022, to discuss historic issues which have been elevated to new levels of concern: destructive fishing practices are exacerbating loss in a time of rapidly changing ecosystems.

Prior to the meeting, AMCC urged the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) – the science advisory group to the NPFMC - to incorporate recommendations on their Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) model inputs and to draw more conservative conclusions regarding the effects of fishing, particularly trawling. In our letter, we agreed with the SSC’s conclusion that fishing activities have long-term effects on habitat but disagreed with the conclusion that those effects are not detrimental to fish habitat and fish populations. The 2022 EFH review identified 16 stocks of concern with significant habitat disturbance, a staggering rise from zero identified in the 2017 EFH review; still, no action was taken to address the health of those habitats. You can read our full letter here.

Our concern about habitat destruction extends to all biodiversity in the ocean, and the continued decline of Bristol Bay Red King Crab appears to be a harbinger of the loss to come unless adaptive management is adopted. At this meeting, we requested the NPFMC make immediate and meaningful adaptations to allow Bristol Bay Red King Crab the chance to rebuild. Rebuilding this stock must include protections for the essential habitat critical for supporting all life stages, addressing unknown unobserved mortality* from fishing effects and more. Read our letter on considerations for rebuilding the Bristol Bay Red King Crab stock here.

Plainly put, a key concern that AMCC staff found to be underrepresented in analysis and consideration of rebuilding the stock is the damage to Bristol Bay Red King Crab habitat caused by pelagic trawl gear. This fishing gear is used to harvest species like pollock, much of which is processed into imitation crab.

Technically, pelagic gear should not be “interacting” with the bottom of the ocean; it is defined by the midwater habitat of their targeted species, but does not accurately describe the activity of the net itself. Pollock’s reputation through sustainability certifications such as Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) rests entirely upon the assumption that pelagic trawl gear does not contact the seafloor. However, a discussion paper presented to the NPFMC in April 2022 illuminated an alarming discrepancy in this assumption, calculating that seafloor contact ranges from 40% to 100% of the time during pelagic trawl drags.

The implications of this fishing practice on the seafloor is profound, ranging from habitat destruction to unobserved mortality - crushing animals like crab which don’t end up in the net to be accounted for as bycatch. The pelagic fleet’s ability to fish in protected waters like the Red King Crab Savings Area**, because of the assumption that pelagic gear does not touch the seafloor, is deeply problematic.

AMCC believes unobserved mortality from pelagic trawl gear is not alone to blame in the declining Bristol Bay Red King Crab stock, but without needed monitoring and accounting, it cannot be ruled out as a contributor and should not be ignored. Additional protection for Bristol Bay Red King Crab habitat would allow greater reprieve for crab stocks to rebuild.

Ultimately, the NPFMC deferred action on deciding a rebuilding plan until the December meeting to conduct further analysis of options. We will be present at, and engaged in, this meeting with our partners. Stay tuned for further information on this issue and to join our asks ahead of the December meeting.

To learn more about the NPFMC’s decisions, you can read their October 2022 Newsletter here.

* Unobserved Mortality is unintentional fishing-related mortality that is not calculated as bycatch.

** This Savings Area is an area closed to bottom trawling.

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