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Every Fish Counts

AMCC Recap of October 2023 NPFMC Meeting

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) met October 2-11, 2023 online and in person in Anchorage. AMCC was there to continue our advocacy on agenda items (C2) Observer 2024 Annual Deployment Plan, (C3) BSAI/GOA Groundfish, (C4) Chum Salmon Bycatch and (D1) Bering Sea Local Knowledge/Traditional Knowledge/Subsistence Information Protocol and Onramps.

The technical names for these items belie their significance to AMCC’s mission. This blog post provides background about each issue, what was planned for this meeting, what AMCC was advocating for and why we consider them priorities. It also includes AMCC’s summary of the meeting results and anticipated next steps.

Agenda Item C2: Observer Annual Deployment Plan

Background: Federal fisheries are monitored by a combination of onboard observers and, more recently, electronic monitoring (EM) technology. Information collected is used by the National Marine Fisheries Service to manage and report harvests, and by Fishery Management Councils in their decision-making processes. Each year an Annual Deployment Plan (ADP) is released, specifying how much coverage each gear group will have in the following year, the objectives of that coverage and what strategies the program will employ to achieve them. The goal is to design a monitoring program that collects credible, statistically rigorous scientific data within the restraints of the current budget.

What was planned for the October 2023 meeting: The NPFMC was seeking public comments on the draft ADP for 2024, released in advance of the meeting.

What AMCC advocated for and why: AMCC continued to advocate for improved observer safety standards in the ADP design, as well as improved observer coverage rates, data transparency and electronic monitoring turn around times so that data is useful for managers accounting for quotas and bycatch limits. We believe that the ADP needs to first and foremost consider the safety of the observers sent out on boats - recent years have seen an uptick in reports of observer harassment. This compromises safety and observers’ ability to collect unbiased, reliable data from which fisheries can be monitored and managed.

Summary of the meeting results: The Council supported the current draft of the ADP plan moving forward for partial coverage fisheries to be finalized at the December 2023 meeting. The Council made no progress on addressing AMCC’s concerns, but did choose to incorporate into the 2024 ADP: a combined gear stratification scheme, 100% EM coverage on pelagic trawl vessels participating in the Experimental Fishing Permit and removal of fixed-gear vessels that have not participated in the program for over 3 years.

Anticipated next steps: The Council will finalize a path forward in December 2023. AMCC will continue to explore weaknesses within the observer program and systemic dependencies on reliable observer data, and push for greater focus on designing ADPs that promote accurate data collection to support sustainable fisheries.

Agenda Item C3: BSAI/GOA Groundfish

Background: Annually, the Council discusses specifications including Overfishing Limits and Total Allowable Catch (TAC) for all groundfish managed within the North Pacific. After plans are first proposed and discussed within specialized Plan Team meetings, they come before the Council for their first review in October and are finalized in December, setting the following year's harvest levels. The Council reviews a suite of information including Groundfish Plan Team reports, stock assessment information and ecosystem status reports.

What was planned for the October 2023 meeting: The Council was scheduled to recommend proposed rulemaking for groundfish Overfishing Limits and TAC specifications for the upcoming period, including projections for 2025. In addition, the Council would recommend gear and target fishery apportionments of Prohibited Species Catch (PSC) (aka bycatch) limits for halibut, red king crab, Tanner crab, opilio crab and herring.

What AMCC was advocating for and why: Of significance to Alaskans is the enormous anticipated pollock TAC, so AMCC elevated what prior years’ TAC levels "cost" in reported bycatch. With declines in salmon, crab, halibut and more, bycatch is one of the cumulative stressors that must be factored in when setting the TAC.

Summary of the meeting results: The Council adopted the proposed 2024-2025 Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska groundfish harvest specifications. Of particular note, the pollock TAC continues to increase.

Anticipated next steps: Final specifications will be approved at the December 2023 Council meeting. Though we do not expect the Council to alter its course for 2024, AMCC will continue to elevate the consequences of harvest specifications on bycatch.

Agenda Item C4: Chum Salmon Bycatch

Background: Chum salmon returns to Western Alaska have dropped below previous historical lows, leading to commercial, sport and subsistence fishery closures. Meanwhile, chum salmon are being caught as bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery, which does not have a limit for allowable chum Prohibited Species Catch (PSC).

What was planned for the October 2023 meeting: The NPFMC would review the preliminary review analysis that breaks down the feasibility of proposed alternatives for additional management measures to minimize Western Alaska chum salmon bycatch by the Bering Sea pollock fleet and hear public input.

What AMCC was advocating for and why: AMCC continued to advocate for the inclusion of low PSC numbers in future analyses, supporting numbers that were advocated for by salmon-dependent people throughout Alaska. The range of alternative actions currently being considered are intended to be used in tandem, if deemed helpful, and as such AMCC has emphasized the value of additional measures for returning more chum to Western Alaska, including time and area closures. Until final action is initiated, chum bycatch in the Bering Sea Pollock fishery is essentially unmanaged - there is currently no limit on, or regulatory means of minimizing, chum caught by the pollock fleet. Summary of the meeting results: Though sovereign, salmon-dependent people called for meaningful PSC limits to be incorporated into analysis, the State of Alaska led a motion to propose PSC levels that are above the average bycatch rate from the last ten years. The pollock fleet’s internal management plans seemed to take primary focus through questioning and dialogue from the Council and its advisory bodies. The only explicit direction to incorporate Traditional Knowledge was included under development of these industry-guided “Incentive Plan Agreements.” The need to reduce bycatch of salmon bound for Western Alaska river systems is ethically and ecologically imperative. Every fish counts.

Anticipated next steps: National Environmental Policy Act (or NEPA) analytical documents are being prepared to inform the decision-making process. The Council will then move forward with an initial review analysis to consider potential environmental, social and cultural and economic impacts of the management alternatives under consideration, relative to the status quo of no limits. We anticipate a draft initial review analysis will return to the Council for review and further development at a later meeting, as early as April 2024. AMCC will continue to engage with this critical issue along with Alaskans throughout the state.

Agenda Item D1: Bering Sea Local Knowledge/Traditional Knowledge/ Subsistence Information Protocol and Onramps

Background: This Protocol provides guidance for identifying, analyzing and incorporating Local Knowledge, Traditional Knowledge and subsistence (LKTKS) information into NPFMC decision-making processes. The onramps (or points of entry) provide recommendations to take this valuable information into consideration when making management decisions. Together, the Protocol and onramp recommendations offer the full suite of information for the Council to consider.

What was planned for the October 2023 meeting: The Council was scheduled to formally adopt the Protocol and onramps resulting from a collaborative, multi-year effort from the NPFMC’s LKTKS Taskforce. This taskforce was formed to fill an identified gap in fisheries management stemming from the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan. Adopting the Protocol will serve to improve NPFMC processes and support its ecosystem goals.

What AMCC was advocating for and why: AMCC supported the Council adopting the Protocol and onramps. The Protocol will support guidance in MSA National Standard 2 as it relates to “Best Scientific Information Available" and supports essential components of ecosystem-based fishery management.

Summary of the meeting results: The Protocol and onramps were formally adopted by the Council. This will result in ongoing development of the LKTKS search engine; continued support for two-way dialogue and engagement between the NPFMC and Tribes and communities as well as Tribal Consultations led by the National Marine Fisheries Service occurring early and often; new materials to support analytical staff and changes to the NPFMC’s public comment procedures allowing testifiers to provide introductions without it counting against their allowed time limit. The Council’s full motion containing the approved LKTKS policy statement can be found here.

Anticipated next steps: AMCC looks forward to supporting this initiative led by residents of the Bering Sea region, with an eye on how such an approach would benefit communities and fishery management in the Gulf of Alaska as well. While this work came as a result of an identified gap in fisheries management as part of the Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan, the value of this inclusive initiative would clearly benefit all of Alaska.

Mark your calendars! December 4-12, 2023 is the next scheduled meeting of the NPFMC in Anchorage and online. To stay up to date on this meeting, visit the NPFMC website here.

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