The North Pacific Fishery Management Council held a special meeting on May 15th to review emergency requests because of COVID-19 in the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ program and Charter Halibut fleet restrictions. Under the provisions of an emergency rule, the Council examined requests on transfer provisions, vessel caps, rollovers, and season length in the Halibut/Sablefish IFQ program along with charter concerns.
A provision in the Magnuson-Stevens Act provides authority for rulemaking to address an emergency. The action under consideration must result from recent, unforeseen events or recently discovered circumstances and presents serious conservation or management problems in the fishery. In addition, the immediate benefits of the emergency action must outweigh the value of the standard rulemaking process, which provides advance notice, public comments, and careful consideration of the impacts on participants.
The Council voted to allow the temporary transfer of halibut and sablefish IFQ for all quota shareholders for the remainder of the 2020 fishing season. IFQ holders may transfer quota for any reason to address unprecedented circumstances because of COVID-19. Overall, council members emphasized support for the owner onboard provision of the IFQ program but felt the rare circumstances and impacts of an unforeseen pandemic warranted the emergency rule change.
The Council also voted to support management measures to reduce halibut charter harvest controls in area 2C and 3A in response to reduced angler effort because of COVID-19. In area 2C, charter fishermen will maintain a one halibut daily limit with an upper size limit of 80 inches and a lower size limit of 45 inches.
In area 3A, annual limits and day of the week closures will be relaxed, and the charter fleet can catch two halibut a day, one of any size and the second fish equal to or less than 32 inches.
Councilmember Andy Mezirow, a charter fisherman from Seward, introduced the motion and expressed the need to provide increased flexibility for the charter fleet during this economically challenging time.
The Council voted in support to remove vessel cap regulations for IFQ halibut harvested in Bering Sea regulatory areas 4B, 4C, and 4D for the remainder of the 2020 IFQ fishing season.
Circumstances in the Bering sea lead to the decision that an emergency exists with COVID-19, and there are management problems in the Bering Sea. Councils members cited concern with foregone harvest in the remote region with travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, among other regional challenges. The request to remove vessel caps in other areas, including the Gulf of Alaska, was not deemed a management concern with the number of vessels and capacity to harvest available quota.
The Council voted to take no action on the request for a year-round fishery or an increased IFQ end of year rollover provision up to 30% due to management complications and lack of emergency rule justification.
The Council will meet via webinar in June along with the Advisory Panel and the Science and Statistical Committee. The abbreviated meeting will include time-sensitive management issues such as setting harvest limits for scallops and Bering Sea crab species.
The Council will also review the preliminary analysis of an action which would amend the Fishery Management Plan to manage the salmon fisheries that occur in Federal in the waters outside the 3-mile state waters line in Cook Inlet. Council staff are working on the logistics to provide the opportunity for verbal public testimony during the meeting and are encouraging stakeholders to submit written comments to facilitate the process of the virtual meeting.