Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 12:06 PM on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Council considering rule changes on bycatch

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took up a hot issue at its meeting last month, examining proposed changes to rules that govern halibut bycatch by trawlers and groundfish longliners (fixed gear) in the Gulf of Alaska.

What the council is considering is a 5, 10 or 15 percent reduction in the bycatch limit, according to NPFMC staff member Jane DiCosimo.

Current bycatch limits are set at 2,000 metric tons for trawlers and 300 metric tons for fixed gear, an amount that was set in 1986 for trawlers and 1993 for fixed gear. Those removals come to just over 5 million pounds, the same as the 2012 quota for the commercial halibut fleet in Area 3B, in the western Gulf of Alaska, and almost twice as much as the quota set for Area 2C, in Southeast Alaska.

The decision at the February council meeting was to release the document with the analysis of the proposals for public review, and schedule final action on the proposals for the June meeting in Kodiak.

However, the council also decided to change a few things in the proposals, which will delay the document's release.

"They did a little tweaking of the division at which the limit might be reduced," DiCosimo said. "So instead of it being reduced for the entire trawl fleet, it might be reduced for the catcher fleet versus the catcher/processor fleet."

The reasoning had to do with rules already in place.

"Different sectors of the trawl and longline fleet have undergone rationalization, and so some of the sectors made the argument that they already have reduced their bycatch when they went to that rationalized fishery," she noted.

DiCosimo used what is known as the "Amendment 80" fleet as an example.

Amendment 80 "... provided certain species' quotas directly to the flatfish trawl fishery as a sector, as a group, and then they form arrangements between the vessels as to who is going to catch that allocation," she said. "By doing that you have vessels not all fishing at once, they're fishing in a more cooperative style, so that as they encounter bycatch species they have more leeway to move off those fishing grounds and move on to other fishing grounds where they have no additional competition and they have the time to lift their gear and relocate."

Amendment 80 came with "... a forced reduction of their sector's halibut bycatch limits, so they said they've already had their cap reduced and (that sector) wants the council to consider not taking further reductions; that the previous reductions should count toward the current reductions," DiCosimo explained.

There are 22 vessels authorized under the Amendment 80 program.

Before releasing the draft analysis, the council also requested that it incorporate "updated information on Pacific halibut from staff documents from the January 2012 International Pacific Halibut Commission meeting; expanded descriptions of IPHC methods on lost yield, migration, and apportionment of bycatch of halibut among those under 26 inches, between 26 inches and 32 inches, and over 32 inches; and responses to Scientific and Statistical Committee recommendations, as possible."

The proposed changes are coming at about the same time that the National Marine Fisheries Service is implementing a 100 percent observer coverage program for all groundfish fisheries, up from the current 30 percent, something that many in the industry think will show that more halibut bycatch is being caught than is being reported.

DiCosimo said that is definitely a possibility.

"I think we are expecting to see that," she noted.

Full observer coverage begins in 2013, although the Amendment 80 fleet was required to have a higher level of coverage as a result of their direct allocation, some of which is provided by video monitoring by on-board cameras.

DiCosimo also said that the council briefly discussed something that many halibut fishermen were talking about at the IPHC's annual meeting in Anchorage in January, which is tying halibut bycatch limits to abundance, just as is done with the removals by the commercial and sport/charter fleets. However, she said it was dismissed for two basic reasons: time constraints and potential upcoming changes to the way the IPHC determines biomass.

"Doing an abundance-based linkage would have required more analysis than the council allotted for," she said. "It was really trying to push for whether to reduce the Gulf of Alaska bycatch amount as quickly as it could. Doing it based on abundance would have slowed that process down."

She added that the other timing issue was that the IPHC was struggling with the whole abundance issue at present.

"It may, either next year or some time in the not-too-distant-future, may be revising its stock assessment model yet again, and so this might be a bad time to make that linkage, because the whole basis for that linkage might be changing," she said.

She had encouraging words for proponents of that method, however.

"That's a possibility for the future," she said. "It is a recommendation that some industry members have made to the council. In fact, the Gulf of Alaska groundfish plan team, which functions as a stock assessment review panel, made that recommendation to the council."

She said that it will likely be one of the many topics addressed in an upcoming April bycatch workshop taking place in Seattle.

Because of the changes the council requested, the draft analysis of the proposed bycatch reductions will not be available until about May 1. However, several documents used to decide on the amounts included in the draft proposal, as well as the full description of the requested changes to the proposal, are available at the NPFMC website, http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/.

The May 1 release of the draft proposal will allow for a four-week public review period, with a public comment period through the day that the council takes final action at the June meeting.

The draft proposal will be posted on the NPFMC website, along with instructions for submitting comments.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.