Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has approved a fishery management plan amendment aimed at reducing halibut bycatch in four sectors of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries.
Harvesters affected include the Amendment 80 fleet, the trawl limited access sector, the non-trawl sector, and community development quota program groups.
Pritzker’s approval, announced on Jan. 21, stems from a recommendation by North Pacific Fishery Management Council last June to reduce halibut prohibited species catch limits in the BSAI.
The council’s recommendation for Amendment 111 to the fishery management plan for groundfish in the BSAI was prompted by declining commercial catch limits for the directed commercial halibut fishery.
The council’s fishery analyst, Diana Evans, said that the National Marine Fisheries Service wants to public the rule as soon as possible, but can’t commit to a specific date.
They received a lot of detailed comments that will require some work to respond to, but the plan is to get the rule done and published this spring, in which case it would be in effect before the B season, Evans said in an email response to a query.
NOAA Fisheries anticipates the amendment will reduce the actual amount of halibut bycatch in the BSAI by approximately 361 metric tons compared to 2014, and may also provide additional harvest opportunities for directed commercial, personal use, sport and subsistence halibut fisheries, NOAA officials said Jan. 20.
The International Pacific Halibut Commission, the joint US/Canadian body charged with management of Pacific halibut, has determined that the exploitable biomass of halibut has declined in recent years, particularly in the BSAI.
The decline has resulted in reductions in catch limits for the directed commercial halibut fishery, particularly in Area 4 CDE in the eastern and northern Bering Sea.
Groundfish fisheries targeting species like pollock and yellowfin sole regularly encounter halibut as bycatch while fishing.
Amendment 111 would reduce the overall BSAI halibut prohibited species catch limit by 21 percent to 3,515 metric tons, in four specific areas. The Amendment 80 sector is reduced by 25 percent, to 1,745 metric tons, the BSAI trawl limited access sector is reduced by 15 percent to 745 metric tons, the BSAI non-trawl sector is reduced by 15 percent to 710 metric tons, and participants in the community development quota program are reduced by 20 percent to 315 metric tons.
Vessels taking bycatch are required to keep the halibut long enough for observers on board to document the total, and then discard the halibut back into the ocean.