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Every Fish Counts: AMCC Recap of April 2024 NPFMC Meeting

Posted April 26, 2024


The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) met April 1-9, 2024 online and in person in Anchorage. AMCC was there to continue our advocacy to meaningfully reduce salmon bycatch in Bering Sea groundfish fisheries and weigh in on advancing critical research priorities for the years ahead. These issues correspond to agenda items: (C2) Salmon Bycatch and (D1) Research Priorities


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): Salmon Bycatch


Background:

The Bering Sea is undergoing rapid ecological and climatological shifts, and 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 chum salmon limit, and chum and Chinook stocks have declined to crisis levels for communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and throughout the Bering Strait. Some NPFMC members have agreed this is a humanitarian crisis. 


What was planned for this meeting:

The NPFMC reviewed the preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) which evaluate the potential environmental, economic and social impacts that could result from proposed alternatives to minimize chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. It also reviewed a genetic stock of origin report of Chinook salmon and chum salmon bycatch in both the 2023 Bering Sea pollock and 2023 Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon fisheries. Finally, it reviewed Incentive Plan Agreement (IPA) written reports with specific information on chum salmon avoidance measures and actions taken by the trawl sector in 2023. The two primary decision points under this agenda item before the NPFMC in April were to determine if it wished to modify or refine proposed alternatives, and how or if it wished to move this action forward.  


What AMCC was advocating and why:

Considering the ecological volatility and profound interconnectedness in the Bering Sea ecosystem, AMCC believes managing and mitigating the human activities impacting these stocks is critical. Currently, chum bycatch in the Bering Sea Pollock fishery is essentially unmanaged, as there is currently no limit on, or regulatory means of minimizing, chum interceptions. AMCC continued to advocate for:

  • assessment of a broader range of alternatives, including lower bycatch limits for chum salmon and options for time and area closures that apply to vessels participating in IPAs, which use “rolling hot spot” closures

  • assessment of the potential for alternatives, particularly including potential time and area closures, to contribute to the health of salmon prey species including squid, as a salmon Essential Fish Habitat component that has been insufficiently analyzed since 2017

  • incorporation of Indigenous Knowledge/Traditional Knowledge regarding the historic and ongoing role of bycatch in salmon declines

  • expansion of reporting regarding fishing behavior associated with higher and lower rates of salmon bycatch, including use of test tows, tow duration, bottom depth and trawl depth, and trends should be assessed that could be incorporated into regulation

  • consideration of the benefits of chum salmon bycatch reductions for stocks of origin outside Western and Interior Alaska 


Results:

An incredible 441 public comments were submitted for the entire NPFMC meeting, with 323 under the salmon bycatch agenda item and many more related comments scattered throughout the agenda. Alaska Native peoples affected by salmon declines spoke about their lives as salmon people, their relationships with the land and their river systems and all the life affected by salmon declines. A total of forty-one people testified to the Advisory Panel and 100 testified to the Council itself. The chairs of the Advisory Panel and the Council respected the distance traveled by many people and the significance of the issue, and respected testifiers’ time by allowing for meaningful introductions and opportunities to make concluding statements beyond the typical allowable time for testimony.

Under the thoughtful stewardship and defense of the Advisory Panel’s recently designated Tribal representative, Eva Dawn Burke, the AP unanimously passed a motion which considered a lower bycatch limit for chum salmon than previously analyzed, as well as an additional alternative to consider a time and area closure with an area-specific cap on bycatch. Listeners online were unable to hear the applause that spontaneously erupted from meeting attendees in the room when the vote was counted.


The Council advanced a similar motion several days later, which specified the following potential closure areas and caps for the newly-added alternative:

  • Alternative 5: Inseason Corridor Cap 

  • Prohibited Species Catch cap on total chum salmon in corridor area 1 during June 10 to August 31. Cap range of 50,000 total chum salmon (~8,550 Western Alaska chum salmon) to 200,000 total chum salmon (~34,200 Western Alaska chum salmon). All non-Chinook salmon bycatch accrues to area-specific caps, regardless of origin. If the cap is reached during the time period, the area closes to that sector(s) for the rest of the time period. Caps and area closures are set in federal regulations. Additional windows for salmon passage and other avoidance measures should be implemented inseason through the contracted Incentive Plan Agreements using inseason fishery data and best available genetic data. 

  • Corridor Area (Options 1 – 3 are mutually exclusive): 

  • Option 1: Cluster 1  

  • Option 2: Unimak area 

  • Option 3: Cluster 2. If selected, cluster 2 cap is 50,000 or 100,000 total chum salmon. (~8,550 or 17,100 Western Alaska chum salmon)

Anticipated next steps:

This agenda item is scheduled for another round of Initial Review, and will be revisited later in 2024. AMCC has continually advocated for the implementation of protected areas to protect sensitive habitat and benthic organisms, and we maintain that closed areas can also contribute to safe passage along known migration corridors. Recently, the NPFMC has disregarded “static” closures as being “blunt tools” which result in too much forgone or redistributed fishing effort, citing assumptive analysis which suggests that closing fishing effort in areas of high pollock abundance will result in higher bycatch of other important non-target species such as Chinook salmon. We will continue to push back on these assumptions and are proud to continue advocating with salmon-dependent people to bring more salmon home. Every salmon counts.


Agenda item (D1):  Research Priorities - RESCHEDULED


Background:

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) requires that regional fishery management councils develop “multi-year research priorities for fisheries, fisheries interactions, habitats, and other areas of research that are necessary for management purposes”. This includes research to support fishery management plans and associated regulations for fisheries requiring conservation and management to prevent overfishing and rebuild depleted fish stocks.


What was planned for this meeting: 

The Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) that advises the NPFMC was scheduled to recommend research priorities for the next 5 years. The NPFMC was then supposed to prioritize critical ongoing monitoring research as well as a Top Ten list of targeted research needs that are emphasized to encourage potential funding opportunities and to stress their importance. 


What AMCC advocated for and why:

AMCC advocated for research projects that address subsistence reliance on marine resources, the impacts of mobile gear on crab and benthic habitat, the effects of fisheries management policies on communities over time and more. AMCC’s priorities included the following recommendations, all of which came from the NPFMC’s various advisory bodies, many endorsed by multiple bodies:


  • Traditional Knowledge: There are numerous ways Traditional Knowledge will strengthen all Research Priorities, including offering new frameworks for analysis; fostering relationships between Indigenous and Western scientific researchers and communities; and filling gaps in existing ecological and social scientific research.

  • Retrospective and meta- analysis regarding whether, how, when and why objectives and goals of fishery management plans are or are not achieved over time. In light of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement discussion, a fruitful first focus would be the existing Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish Fishery Management Plan.

  • Retrospective analysis of whether and how social science is or is not used regarding predictions of changed fishing behavior in light of proposed changes to management structures.

  • Document and assess Tribal citizen and Tribal Nation reliance on, participation in, and impacts of federally managed fisheries (historically and throughout time) 

  • Evaluate fishing gear impacts on crab, benthic communities and essential fish habitat

  • Quantifying the magnitude of unobserved fishing mortality due to contact with fishing gear in the Bering Sea

  • Quantifying the magnitude of benthic habitat disturbance due to contact with fishing gear and their associated impacts on benthic species in Bering Sea

  • Evaluate direct marine mammal-fishery interactions (including feeding on discards and bycatch spatial and temporal trends) and potential mitigation measures for marine mammal conservation

  • Further research on monitoring, understanding and reducing western Alaska salmon bycatch in Bering Sea groundfish fisheries

  • Early life history population bottlenecks


Results:

Due to extended testimony and conversations on the Chum Salmon agenda item, the Research Priorities agenda item was rescheduled to be discussed at the June 2024 NPFMC meeting. 


Anticipated next steps:

AMCC will be attending the June meeting and maintaining its points of advocacy to influence the NPFMC’s Final Action.


Photo Courtesy of Theresa Peterson

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