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April Council Meeting Update

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It was a busy week at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s (Council) April meeting. Here’s a summary of the important items discussed:

  1. Taking final action on several charter halibut issues

  2. Advancing an abundance-based management approach for halibut in the Bering Sea

  3. Initiating a discussion paper to consider allowing the release of small sablefish

  4. Expanding a discussion paper on targeting halibut and sablefish with pot gear in the Bering Sea

  5. Voting to postpone indefinitely the proposal to modify Chinook bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska catcher vessel trawl sector

Abundance-Based Management for Halibut Bycatch For nearly three years, the Council has been working on developing a policy that would manage halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island groundfish fisheries. The policy would implement new bycatch caps that are based, in part, on the abundance of the halibut stock, as opposed to using a fixed bycatch cap. AMCC supports this effort because it could improve the conservation and management of the halibut resource while also providing prioritizing access for the directed fishery at times of low abundance.

The Council took a significant step forward at the April meeting, developing draft alternatives based on stakeholder input from the various sectors (i.e., hook and line, trawl, and directed halibut). Acknowledging that these alternatives were only the start of an iterative process, the Council recognized that the industry proposals, as amended by the Council, would serve as a good baseline for analyzing how an abundance-based policy would affect each fishery. Moving forward, the abundance-based management working group will provide a brief update to the Council’s Science and Statistical Committee at the June meeting in Kodiak and bring back a draft environmental impact statement for review in October.

Lastly, in response to directed halibut users’ requests to have the Council develop a mechanism to manage or incentivize a further reduction in legal sized halibut, the Council directed staff to provide a white paper detailing the availability of relevant data from the observer program. This concept offers one of the best linkages between halibut bycatch and directed halibut quotas and we therefore see it as an important concept in helping the Council achieve their stated objective of providing for directed halibut operations in the Bering Sea. This paper will likely be available for review in June or October.

GOA Trawl Chinook PSC Limits The Council reviewed an action which considered modification of Gulf of Alaska (GOA) Chinook salmon prohibited species catch (PSC) in the GOA non-pollock groundfish and rockfish program catcher vessel trawl fisheries. After careful consideration of new information since establishing Chinook salmon bycatch caps for these trawl fisheries in 2015, a majority of the Council voted in favor of postponing the action indefinitely. The discussion and subsequent analysis was in response to new information provided by expanded observer coverage on under 60-foot trawl catcher vessels in the GOA, as well as ongoing genetic sampling efforts to determine the river of origin for bycaught Chinook salmon. Improved observer data on under 60-foot trawlers revealed bycatch was higher than estimated in the Western Gulf of Alaska and increased genetic sampling suggests 97% of the trawl bycatch in the GOA is from Southeast Alaska, British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. During the development of original bycatch caps, this information was not available to the Council members and is relevant in determining whether such caps are set at the appropriate levels under National Standard 9 of the Magnuson Stevens Act.

New information in the analysis also highlighted the status of Chinook stocks in Southeast Alaska river systems and the magnitude of the declines of Chinook salmon escapement in a number of rivers. In 2017, there were three new listings of stocks of concern and recent data indicates two more rivers may be listed after 2018, with returns forecasted to be one of the lowest on record. In response to the decline, the Board of Fish voted to impose severe restrictions on salmon fishermen in Southeast. The closures will provide corridors for the Chinook salmon to pass to help address numerous unmet escapement goals. Ocean conditions appear to be the primary source affecting the survivability of young Chinook as they experience high rates of mortality their first few years in the ocean. Nonetheless, genetic studies indicate approximately 15% of the trawl bycatch is bound for Southeast.

While it is not possible to know how many of these fish would survive to spawn, efforts to reduce fishing pressure for all user groups will contribute to rebuilding the stocks. Small numbers of spawners, 200-400 fish, may help with the rebuilding plan and may help begin a recovery process. A letter to the Council from the Board of Fish expressed concern with any action that could result in increased Chinook bycatch and noted that negotiations were underway with the Pacific Salmon Treaty and that “increasing the Chinook salmon PSC limits would severely exacerbate already contentious treaty negotiations.”  After reviewing the suite of new information, the Council chose a precautionary approach, consistent with the National Standards, and determined it was not the time to continue a discussion of modifying Chinook limits for the trawl fleet.

Halibut/Sablefish Issues An unprecedented recruitment of baby sablefish and concern from Gulf of Alaska fishermen about the impacts of harvesting large amounts of small fish led to the initiation of a discussion paper to consider modifying the requirements to retain small sized sablefish in the IFQ longline and pot fishery. The paper will include a discussion of available data to inform discard mortality rates along with consideration of the trade-offs of a minimum size requirement versus a voluntary careful release.

Also, in the IFQ halibut/sablefish fisheries the Council expanded the discussion to consider the ability to target halibut and sablefish in the Bering Sea with pot gear. The discussion is in response to interactions with whales throughout the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands. Fishermen report increased whale predation and changes in fishing strategies, such as moving to a different location and dropping the gear back down when the whales show up, does not seem to help much. Careful consideration of potential gear conflicts will be a part of the discussion.

Charter Halibut Issues The Council voted to approve a measure that would require guided and non-guided anglers that are using a sport guide service to remain subject to guided sport fishing limits. Additionally, the Council approved implementation of an annual registration process for transferable and non-transferable charter halibut permits to better understand current use.

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