Federal fisheries managers are asking all industry sectors to voluntarily undertake efforts to reduce halibut mortalities in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, by 10 percent from the current five-year average levels, through the 2014-15 fisheries.
To evaluate progress in these efforts, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council also requested in a motion passed June 8 during its summer meeting in Nome, that industry report back to the council on measures being implemented and developed, and, to the extent possible, the effectiveness of those measures in terms of absolute reductions in halibut mortality.
The NPFMC additionally approved motions initiating an analysis of Chinook and chum salmon bycatch measures in the Bering Sea pollock fishery with five alternatives, and an observer program motion to develop a draft 2015 annual deployment plan for council review with several considerations.
The halibut bycatch motion encouraged the National Marine Fisheries Service to continue working closely with the Amendment 80 sector to develop deck sorting procedures and technologies that could reduce halibut mortalities, in order to initiate regulatory changes for a full-scale program.
The council also asked NMFS to work with the International Pacific Halibut Commission to provide halibut bycatch and discard size data from the observer program in a form that can be better incorporated into IPHC stock assessments.
Council member Duncan Fields, of Kodiak, said he was supporting the action with reluctance, saying the motion did not go far enough fast enough. “I think we are taking a tepid step in the right direction,” he said.
“I wish there were more tools at our disposal to address the halibut PSC concerns,” Fields said, in comments addressed to the council through Chairman Eric Olson.
“The bottom line is, mister chairman, the industry, which is a wonderfully, hard working, productive, innovative industry, is still taking five to six million pounds of halibut out of the Bering Sea on an annual basis, and I appreciate all the reasons that halibut is needed but I also appreciate the need for conservation, the need to recognize the impact of PSC both in the Bering Sea as well as in the Gulf of Alaska.”
The salmon bycatch motion stated that the current chum salmon bycatch reduction program does not meet the council’s objectives to prioritize Chinook salmon bycatch avoidance, while preventing high chum salmon bycatch and focusing on avoidance of Alaska chum salmon stocks, allowing flexibility to harvest pollock in times and places that best support those goals. Incorporating chum salmon avoidance through the inventive plan agreements should more effectively meet those objectives by allowing for establishment of chum measures through a program that is sufficiently flexible to adapt to changing conditions quickly, the motion said.
The alternatives include one to revise federal regulations to lower the performance standard in years of low Chinook salmon abundance, with low abundance defined as fewer than 500,000 king salmon.
“Bycatch is not the only issue,” said veteran fisheries consultant Gale Vick, who addressed the council on behalf of the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, noting a historic stand-down on king salmon harvests by subsistence users. “We all need to work together to resolve this immense problem. If Chinook goes down, we are all in deep trouble,” she said.