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Every Fish Counts: AMCC Recap of February 2024 NPFMC Meeting

Posted February 29, 2024


The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC or Council) met February 5-12, 2024 online and in person in Seattle. AMCC was there to advocate for sustainably managed fisheries that support small-scale fisheries. Our highest priority at this meeting was again advocating to protect essential fish habitat in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska from the devastating impacts of trawl gear. It is imperative we safeguard the vital habitats sustaining the wild fisheries and marine ecosystems upon which we depend.


These issues corresponded to agenda items: (C2) Bristol Bay Red King Crab closure areas, (D1) Pelagic trawl gear definition changes, (D2) Gulf of Alaska Tanner crab protections and (D4) American Fisheries Act Program review.


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.


Photo of coral courtesy of NOAA

Agenda Items (C2) Bristol Bay Red King Crab Closure Areas


  • Background: Bristol Bay Red King Crab (BBRKC) are at a historical low in stock abundance and recruitment, which has led to closure of two of the last three directed fisheries. Our major topic of concern has been the effectiveness of the Council’s decision to close the BBRKC Savings Area to provide protection for BBRKC while still allowing pelagic (midwater) trawl gear to be operated in this area. The Savings Area was enacted in 1997 to protect critical habitat for crab given the high likelihood of encountering BBRKC in the area. Because pelagic gear was believed to be fished without contact to the seafloor, this gear type was allowed to fish within the protected area. We now know, despite many members of the industry saying it was known all along, that the gear is in fact operating on the seafloor. This behavior affects not only habitat, but unobserved crab mortality that goes unaccounted for in modeling stock mortality numbers.


  • What was planned for the February 2024 meeting: The Council planned to consider a second initial review draft for action alternatives that could result in areas that are closed to certain groundfish gears on a calendar-year basis, conditional on triggering mechanisms that are assessed annually. The Council’s purpose and need statement noted the goal of reducing BBRKC mortality from groundfish fishing in areas that may be important to that crab stock and where BBRKC may be found year-round, as well as promoting optimum yield from the directed BBRKC fishery while minimizing negative impacts on groundfish fleets that may experience area closures. The Council also planned to consider impacts on other species that groundfish gears might encounter as a result of avoiding closed areas. Section 8 of the second initial review draft moved forward the discussion between National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) and fishery participants on how to make the existing Bering Sea pelagic trawl gear performance standard enforceable.    


This review paper examined alternatives looking at status quo, annual closures or area closures in response to the consecutive BBRKC fishery closures and historically low stock and recruitment levels. The paper walked through some potential scenarios in response to each of the alternative options in front of the Council. OLE provided perspective on the Pelagic Trawl Performance Standard, stating that the performance standard does not discourage operation on the seafloor and is not an effective tool for limiting seafloor contact for pelagic gear. OLE suggested the Council could clarify new objectives to deter seafloor contact in order to protect habitat, reduce unobserved mortality and protect future crab recruitment. 


  • What AMCC advocated for and why: AMCC advocated for the Council to reaffirm that an original objective of the BBRKC Savings Area was to safeguard the BBRKC population and its critical habitat. Additionally, we advocated that they clarify the purpose and need statement to support new objectives to deter seafloor contact in order to protect habitat beneficial to recruitment, and reduce unobserved mortality of BBRKC. We also urged the Council to expand the scope of alternatives under consideration for this action to include permanent closure of the Savings Area to ALL trawl gear year round. Finally, we asked the Council to make explicit that an objective of the Pelagic Trawl Gear performance standard is to prevent trawl operations on the sea bed, acknowledge that the current standard is not an effective tool and prioritize revisions to the standard that are enforceable.   


  • Summary of the meeting results: In a move that stunned us and our fellow advocates, the Council - with one dissenting vote - took no further action at this time on the analysis of alternatives for Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish area closures. The State of Alaska presented the motion and stated concerns that the closures could result in increased bycatch of Chinook and chum salmon, halibut and other species. The motion then addressed an upcoming agenda item (D1) before the Council took testimony on the issue, shocking several long-time participants in the NPFMC process. Staff were tasked with drafting a discussion paper to inform options for incentivizing pelagic trawl gear innovation. The stated intent for this innovation was for minimizing bycatch and impacts to habitat, and improving efficiency. While this sounds like a positive step, it avoids a true incentive for gear innovation by allowing the current ineffective performance standard to stand, and continues to allow pelagic trawls in areas closed to bottom trawling. Existing processes such as the Magnuson-Stevens Act and Essential Fish Habitat review are already mechanisms which provide incentives to minimize bycatch and impacts to habitat.


  • Anticipated next steps: AMCC will continue to advocate for changes to how pelagic trawl gear is operated that would provide relief for critical habitats that promote healthy, thriving ecosystems.


Agenda Item (D1) PELAGIC TRAWL GEAR DEFINITION CHANGES


  • Background: In 1990, an emergency rule modified the definition of pelagic trawl gear to promote escapement of halibut and crab. The next year, the mesh sizes were increased to provide escape panels for halibut and crab in case the trawl contacted or came near the seafloor. Finally, in 1993 the definition was refined again to ensure that the gear would be fished as intended (“to reduce halibut and trawl bycatches by discouraging or preventing trawl operations on the sea bed when halibut and crab Prohibited Species Catch allowances have been reached”) and introduced the performance standard. In June 2023, the Council passed a motion for National Marine Fisheries Service to work with industry and OLE to clarify that the codend - the part of the trawl that collects what’s captured - is not intended to be regulated, allow for innovation and resolve any inconsistencies in current regulations and/or outdated regulations.

  • What was planned for the February 2024 meeting: It was possible the Council might choose to develop a purpose and need statement and alternatives for analysis based on a discussion paper that provided a starting point for a potential regulatory rulemaking. The discussion paper provided the history of defining pelagic trawl gear in Federal regulation, dating back to 1990 and a summary of how gear components are defined in regulation and common practice specific to Alaska. 


  • What AMCC was advocating for and why: AMCC advocated for the Council to reaffirm that an objective of the Pelagic Trawl Gear definition is to prevent trawl operation on the sea bed, and initiate revisions to the performance standard which provide enforceable accountability to this objective. We see value in the Council taking action to allow for gear innovation explicitly to reduce unobserved mortality and habitat impacts, including those which support modern technology that can quantify bottom contact such as camera and sensor technologies. AMCC urged the Council to list pelagic trawl under the definitions of “bottom contact gear” and “mobile bottom contact gear” until a performance standard which prohibits seafloor contact is proven to be effective and enforceable.

  • Summary of the meeting results: Despite compelling public testimony about the need for clarity regarding the intended use of pelagic trawl gear in terms of its contact with the seafloor, the Council limited action on this issue to what was described as “housekeeping” - adoption of  a purpose and need statement and a list of alternatives for analysis that include: status quo, exclude the codend from limitations applicable to the trawl net, remove outdated text related to parallel line trawls, allow the use of flotation for bycatch excluder devices, allow hardware that secures technology to the trawl as long as the hardware does not appreciably change the intended performance of the trawl and allow technology that may need to be secured to the trawl including live-feed cameras, flow sensors, etc. (These options are not mutually exclusive.)


  • Anticipated next steps: As noted above, AMCC will continue to advocate for changes to how pelagic trawl gear is operated that would provide relief for critical habitats that promote healthy, thriving ecosystems. 


Agenda Item (D2): Gulf of Alaska Tanner Crab Protections


  • Background: Tanner crab around Kodiak Island reside in unique regions with favorable habitat features and are an important species to the marine ecosystem. The current conservation focused harvest strategy in place since 2023 supports the long term health of the crab stocks while providing harvest opportunities for community-based small boat fleets in Alaska.

For nearly two decades, AMCC has worked with Kodiak Tanner crab fishermen in support of measures to protect essential Tanner crab habitat from the impacts of bottom trawling. The proposed areas for protection are off the Eastside of Kodiak Island (statistical areas 525702 and 525630). These areas overlap with local knowledge maps illustrating areas of importance from fishermen, Alaska Department of Fish and Game survey data and directed crab fishermen harvest - all of which illustrate the long standing knowledge of the value of this habitat to the crab. We know these areas are important. From 2013-2023 an average of 49% of all mature female Tanner crab, 47% of all mature male Tanner crab and 41% of all legal male Tanner crab abundance in the Kodiak District was estimated from statistical area’s 525702 and 525630.


  • What was planned for the February 2024 meeting: The Council planned to review a discussion paper which included information on Tanner crab sources of mortality, bycatch in groundfish fisheries and observer coverage in critical crab habitat around Kodiak Island. 


  • What AMCC was advocating for and why: AMCC and over 50 Tanner crab fishermen from Kodiak, Old Harbor, Ouzinkie, Homer and beyond continued to advocate to the Council for area closures off the east side of Kodiak Island to protect critical crab habitat.


  • Summary of the meeting results: The Council responded with a motion for an expanded discussion paper which will include additional information about Barnabus Gully, statistical areas 525630 and 525702, consideration of existing closures off the east side of Kodiak, Tanner crab distribution and the economic importance of Tanner crab and groundfish in these areas over a longer time frame. The additional information will help the decision making process and is responsive to concerns expressed in AMCC’s and the fleet’s comment letters that the areas under consideration for closures consistently contain high concentrations of Tanner crab in all life stages. These areas need protections from the impacts of trawling.

  • Anticipated next steps: The expanded discussion paper will come back to the Council at a future meeting which has not been scheduled yet.  We will be there to advocate in support of measures to protect essential Tanner crab habitat from the impacts of trawling. 


Agenda Item (D4) American Fisheries Act Program Review


  • Background: The American Fisheries Act (AFA) was signed into law in October 1998. This is a Limited Access Privilege Program (LAPP) designed to 1) tighten U.S. ownership standards for fishing vessels that had been exploited under the Anti-reflagging Act, 2) significantly decapitalize the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) pollock fishery and 3) provide the BSAI pollock fleet the opportunity to conduct their fishery in a more rational manner while protecting non-AFA participants in other fisheries. Section 303A of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) requires the Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to evaluate the program’s performance in meeting its goals and objectives as outlined in the MSA, including the impact on harvesting and processing sectors, and fishery dependent communities. The last AFA Program review was finalized in 2017 and the Council is scheduled to begin another review of this program in 2024.

  • What was planned for the February 2024 meeting: At this stage, a program review work plan has been prepared by staff. The purpose of a program review work plan is to detail the legal requirements and guidance for the review, outline the proposed scope and content, and perhaps most importantly, provide an opportunity for the NPFMC’s advisory bodies and members of the public to weigh in on this proposed scope and content. This feedback will inform the development of the review. 

 

  • What AMCC was advocating for and why: AMCC advocated for the work plan to utilize a longer timeframe than the recommended, most recent 9 years of data (2015-2023). We believe that the ocean has undergone many changes in this time period, along with Covid affected years, and that a deep dive on the full extent of the program is warranted. It is critical we understand how the objectives and fleet’s performance is in terms of Prohibited Species Catch allocations.   


  • Summary of the meeting results: The Council was unable to get to this topic at this meeting due to time constraints.

  • Anticipated next steps: AMCC will continue to elevate the importance of continuous review of our fisheries programs and track this program review.


Mark your calendars! April 1-9, 2024 is the next scheduled meeting of the NPFMC online and in person in Anchorage. To stay up to date on this meeting, visit the NPFMC website here and watch for updates from AMCC in our monthly enews. Sign-up at www.akmarine.org.

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