Regulatory measures to reduce chinook salmon bycatch by Gulf of Alaska pollock trawlers were advanced for expedited analysis at the December meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The priority action follows a string of bad news for the kings, most recently the re-initiation of consultation with National Marine Fisheries Service under the Endangered Species Act.
While the specter of an ESA consultation to protect Pacific Northwest salmon stocks looms over the trawl fleet responsible for the Gulf bycatch, the council is equally pursuing protection for the non-ESA listed, but declining, Alaska chinook stocks.
Analysis provided to the North Pacific council revealed a record amount of chinook salmon bycatch in 2010, with an estimated 51,258 fish taken by trawl gear in the Gulf in all fisheries. The pollock fishery accounts for 40,500, or 79 percent, of the total bycatch.
The council action -- intended to be in place by the 2012 season -- directed analysis of the potential impact of hard caps on chinook bycatch of 15,000, 22,500 and 30,000; expanded observer coverage to 30 percent on vessels of less than 60 feet; and the potential to create mandatory bycatch cooperatives in the Central and Western Gulf to regulate fishing behavior in a derby-style fishery.
A hard cap for a prohibited species catch shuts down the fishery when the cap is reached. There currently is no cap on chinook bycatch in the Gulf.
Consultation is initiated under the ESA between the Northwest and Alaska regions of NMFS when the take of chinooks in the Gulf exceeds 40,000. That review is now under way with genetic testing and tagged analysis of about 90 salmon at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau.
Unlike previous bycatch estimates -- such as the last time the 40,000 threshold was crossed in 2007 -- NMFS is confident about its extrapolation this time around because of the high percentage of pollock catch observed during the fall "D" season, when most of the bycatch was taken.
The amount of chinook bycatch is an extrapolation from the 11,843 chinook physically recovered at processers.
During the "D" pollock season, trawlers took an estimated 32,256 chinook. The total 2010 numbers are preliminary and have been revised down to 51,258 from more than 58,000 after the physical census of taken chinook at processing plants.
The council had considered using 30,000 chinook as the hard cap for analysis, but adopted the range of caps by a 6-5 vote to comply with potential Magnuson-Stevens Act guidelines.
"I believe a single cap of 30,000 will send a signal to industry that we are not serious as a council about reducing chinook bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska," said council member Duncan Fields of Kodiak. "I don't believe the 30,000 cap is sufficient incentive for co-ops to reduce bycatch."
The long-term analysis approved by the council will look at hard caps for the non-pollock trawl fishery and whether the ultimate solution to control trawl fishing behavior in the Gulf of Alaska is rationalization of the pollock fishery.
The trawl industry emphasized it is taking the issue seriously and will take voluntary steps during 2011 to reduce bycatch while rules are developed. Some vessels that had high bycatch rates in 2010 have already purchased salmon excluders, which are being widely deployed on the bigger Bering Sea pollock fleet this year after that fleet caught 120,000 chinooks in 2007.
Excluders are a hole with a flap in the trawl net that allow stronger swimming chinook to escape, but they have not been tested widely on smaller vessels in the Gulf.
"The ramifications of having another lightning strike or fishery that demonstrates high level of bycatch creates a lot of anxiety for us," said Bob Krueger, president of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association. "We're going to try to drive that home to the fleet so we have the recognition of the importance."
Acting Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, noting the state's conservative salmon management practices, said she was open to studying lower caps but emphasized the need for greater data from observer coverage and genetic testing to determine river of origin.
"We had an extrapolation from a single sample (in 2007) with a high rate of chinook that led to a high rate in the Central Gulf," Campbell said. "Nobody believes that's the real number. (NMFS) doesn't even believe that's the real number. Nonetheless, that's the number. It's in our data. My concern is the amount of extrapolation going on to come up with these numbers."
Unlike the Bering Sea, which has 100 percent observer coverage, only vessels longer than 60 feet are required to carry observers in the Gulf of Alaska, and those between 60 feet and 125 feet are only required to have observers 30 percent of the time.
Observers monitor fishing behavior, take samples and then sort the delivery at the processor to count each chinook.
The Gulf has many vessels that are either just less than 60 feet or 125 feet to avoid observer requirements, and owners choose when to take observers. The council gave NMFS control of deployment and expanded the observer program to all vessels in October, but that won't take effect until 2013. Without 100 percent observer coverage, it is impossible to enforce full retention of salmon, an option the council considered but dropped from its expedited action.
The ESA review by the Northwest Region of NMFS could be released by late March -- and consequences could be considerable if a number of the 28 ESA listed stocks are found to be part of the bycatch.
If the analysis -- like previous opinions in 1994, 1999 and 2007 -- reveals no danger to ESA listed stocks in the Gulf of Alaska, NMFS may offer some additional conservation recommendations, but that would be the extent of it while the council pursues its own regulatory measures to protect Alaska stocks.
However, if the NMFS Northwest Region determines that current fishery management results in likely jeopardy to the ESA listed stocks, it will supplement the existing biological opinion and offer reasonable and prudent alternatives. Whole areas were shut down to protect the Steller sea lion.
"One thing that has come out in talking with other impacted fisheries, the sport and recreational and subsistence fisheries," Krueger said, "is that this is an incredibly important issue."
In the state, Western Alaska chinook returns have been so poor that treaty escapement goals haven't been met on the Yukon River, commercial fisheries were shut down, subsistence takes were limited for the first time ever in 2008 and the impact on the area is so severe it has been declared a disaster by the federal government.
The Kenai River had one of its lowest king returns ever in 2010; six chinook stocks were recommended for action under the Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Plan by the Board of Fish and four of those stocks were elevated to a management concern.
The Nushagak River was closed for the first time in July, when chinooks fell about 8,000 short of the required spawning stock of 40,000.
"It has always been our general understanding that the Magnuson-Stevens Act was put in place to protect our salmon fisheries," Christine Brandt, a member of the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, told the council. "Now we feel like David instead of Goliath. We are facing Goliath fishing operations at our back door."
On Kodiak, the Karluk and Ayakulik rivers were closed to chinook fishing, including catch and release, in March after spawning stock goals were not met for the fourth straight year.
"We think it's gone unaddressed for far too long," said Jeff Stephan of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association of Kodiak. "We believe the cumulative impacts since the 1980s with joint-venture fisheries are coming home to roost. It's likely to get worse."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.
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