Feds talk fish: Council keeps Gulf chinook restrictions on fast track

Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Chinook salmon bycatch control measures are on track for mid-year implementation during the 2012 pollock season in the Gulf of Alaska.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council stayed on pace to take final action at its June meeting in Nome on an expedited package of new regulations governing the Gulf pollock trawl fleet. The alternatives approved Feb. 5 in Seattle would set a hard cap on chinook bycatch and require membership in an area bycatch control cooperative to fish pollock in the Gulf.

Boats less than 60 feet fishing pollock also would be required to carry observers 30 percent of the time. Current regulations exempt boats less than 60 feet from observer coverage. Observers conduct a census of salmon bycatch after delivery and measured rates are extrapolated to the total catch.

The council intends to adopt a preliminary preferred alternative at its April meeting in Anchorage, making June the soonest final action can happen.

Following the 2010 Gulf pollock season when the chinook bycatch exceeded an estimated 43,000 fish -- triggering a consultation under the Endangered Species Act -- the council pushed the issue to the top of its priorities at its December meeting in Anchorage.

The council also adopted a problem statement at the Seattle meeting regarding chum salmon bycatch by the Bering Sea pollock fleet. The procedural step signals council intent to take action and sharpens the focus of preliminary analysis and alternatives. Measures under consideration include rolling hot spots, area closures and triggered closures with a priority on avoiding bycatch of Western Alaska chums.

In moving toward final action in June on Gulf chinook bycatch, the council resisted industry requests for a longer timeframe and disregarded the same recommendation from its advisory panel, a 20-member body made up of fishery stakeholders from rural to commercial users.

The panel's 12-8 vote for outreach instead and no suggested timeline for action -- which broke down along predictable lines among industry representatives -- generated a minority report that called the issue of chinook bycatch "long overdue" and recommended it remain on an expedited timeframe.

There are currently no measures to control chinook bycatch in the Gulf. Biological opinions conducted under the Endangered Species Act for Pacific Northwest listed stocks have set a threshold of 40,000 chinooks to trigger a consultation between the Northwest and Alaska regions of National Marine Fisheries Service.

Regulations to control chinook bycatch by the pollock fleet in the Bering Sea took effect this season.

The results of the current consultation, which includes some 90 tagged samples from the 2010 Gulf bycatch, won't be known until after the Alaska region provides its annual report to its Northwest counterparts in March.

The combination of high chinook bycatch in 2010 and low returns around Alaska from Kodiak to the Yukon in recent years are driving the council, which followed through on its stated intent to act sooner rather than later.

The time needed for regulation writing and required public comment and response periods means the soonest the rules can take effect will be the fall pollock seasons in 2012. The hard cap will be prorated for the year, and winter bycatch will not count against the cap.

Hard caps close the fishery when reached, and the cap will be apportioned between the western and central Gulf pollock fisheries.

An overage to the area cap in either the western or central Gulf will not close the other fishery, and an option for analysis would allow a 25 percent buffer to the cap to be reached no more than once in a three-year period to account for variability in bycatch rates.

Bob Krueger, executive director of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, cautioned against a "rush to judgment" that holds the pollock fleet accountable for diminished chinook salmon returns around the state. The pollock industry contends that without stream-of-origin data on the Gulf of Alaska chinook bycatch it is impossible to know the impact on Alaska stocks.

The trawl fleet members suggested that increasing bycatch counts are attributable to hatchery operations in Alaska, Asia, Washington state and Canada that release billions of smolts annually.

Julie Bonney, executive director of Groundfish Databank, another pollock fleet organization, told the council taking action in June "makes no sense" and said her preference would be at the December meeting.

Bonney compared the council action under consideration to a unicycle instead of a bicycle because the Gulf fleet was getting only half the tools available to the Bering Sea pollock fleet to reduce salmon bycatch. The Bering Sea fleet is rationalized, meaning harvest quota (and allowable amounts of chinook bycatch) are allocated among sectors. Allocations of quota allow the fishery to be prosecuted in a slower fashion.

The Gulf, however, is still a derby style fishery that often lasts a few days or weeks as the total catch is snapped up as quickly as possible. Bonney and Krueger suggested the council drop consideration of a hard cap of 15,000 chinooks for the entire Gulf.

Bonney said a cap that is too restrictive will set off a "food fight" between the western and central Gulf participants, who will have the hard cap divided among them on a yet-to-be-determined formula. The council is also considering hard caps of 22,500 and 30,000.

The cap of 15,000 and preliminary area divisions of the cap presented by council staff showed the central Gulf pollock fishery would have faced closures in all but two years since 2004 under any formula, potentially stranding thousands of tons of the harvest.

The council is bound by Magnuson-Stevens Act national standards, one of which requires fisheries be managed for optimal yield and another that requires bycatch be minimized to the extent practicable.

In noting Bonney's testimony that a cap of 22,500 -- essentially the annual average chinook bycatch gulfwide -- would be easier to manage among the central and western fleets, council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak said, "by definition reduction is uncomfortable."

Bonney countered that the trade-off of a more restrictive cap would be losses in the stated goals of using a co-operative structure to utilize the advantages of coordination and communication to avoid bycatch.

Co-op membership thresholds under consideration would allow for a maximum of three or four co-ops each in the western and central Gulfs. Co-ops would be required to accept all eligible entrants to the fishery and would be prohibited from allocating harvest quota or bycatch to members.

Members would be required to retain all bycatch, create information sharing systems for hot spots and bycatch rates, promote gear modification and develop vessel performance standards and incentives.

Co-ops would be required to sign an inter-cooperative agreement to ensure that no group gains an advantage over another, for example by requiring the fleet stand down while test fishing takes place.

With the council moving toward adoption of a hard cap divided between the western and central Gulf, an allocation battle will be in the discussion.

"We're going to fight for every fish," Krueger said.

The western Gulf fleet numbers about 25 boats, mostly less than 60 feet, and accounts for about 37 percent of the annual pollock harvest. The central Gulf fleet of about 44 boats counts vessels of all sizes, but mainly between 80 feet and 100 feet.

The potential contention over area allocations flared momentarily in deliberations when council member John Henderschedt of Washington state moved that council staff drop two outlier years when calculating average bycatch rates.

The years he proposed to eliminate were the 2007 central Gulf total of 31,647 and the 2010 western Gulf total of 31,581. The 2007 total is roundly considered an inaccurate extrapolation from a small basket sample; the 2010 total exceeds the sum for the western Gulf for the previous nine years.

The net result of dropping 2010 from 5- and 10-year averages would be to increase the chinook bycatch allocated to the central Gulf under a hard cap. Under Henderschedt's proposal, the western Gulf share of the cap would drop from 30 percent to 22 percent on the 5-year average and from 27 percent to 23 percent on the 10-year average.

Council member Sam Cotten of Eagle River, speaking up for the small rural pollock fleet largely harbored out of Sand Point and King Cove, protested what he called "jiggling" the numbers to benefit one area.

Henderschedt said his motion was not to advocate for one group or the other, but to acknowledge the reality that two outlier years were skewing the averages. The motion was later amended by a 9-2 vote to be another option for analysis rather than eliminating the numbers outright, and the final package passed without objection.

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