Wednesday, November 14, 2012

NPFMC Reaches Decisions on Catch Sharing, Observers and Freezer Longliners

Federal fisheries regulators meeting in Anchorage Oct. 3-9 approved new halibut catch sharing and vessel observer plans, and cleared the way for replacement or rebuilding freezer longline vessels to greater lengths.

The halibut catch sharing plan, which increases the allocation for charter vessels at the expense of the longline fleet, establishes a clear allocation, with sector accountability for commercial and charter vessels in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. Once the plan is implemented, both sectors will be tied to the same abundance index and both will be accountable for their own wastage.

Tom Gemmell, executive director of the Halibut Coalition, estimated the loss in quota share value at $11 million to $23 million in area 3A and $1.6 million to $2.3 million in area 2C, depending on abundance levels.

The stated aim of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was to create a halibut catch sharing plan establishing a clear allocation, with sector accountability, between commercial longliners and charter halibut sectors in Southeast Alaska’s Area 2C, and Southcentral Alaska’s area 3A.

Compared to the catch-sharing plan previously adopted by the NPFMC in 2008, longliners in Southeast Alaska lost 0.8 percent to 1.0 percent of the combined catch, depending on abundance levels, to the charter vessels, said members of the Halibut Coalition. In area 3A, commercial harvesters lost 3.5 percent of the combined catch limit, below 20 million pounds, the Halibut Coalition said.

Rex Murphy, speaking for the Alaska Charter Association, contended that the council’s action gave no boost to the charter allocation.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, disagreed, saying Murphy was comparing the new allocations to what the charter allocation has become in 2012, which is very different from where the guideline harvest level was set.

Observer Coverage
The council also approved revisions to its observer deployment plan that reflect a priority for monitoring vessels managed under prohibited species catch limits in the trip selection pool. The measure asks the National Marine Fisheries service to reconsider the continuous thee-month deployment for selected vessels in the vessel selection pool and to implement instead a two-month deployment.

That measure also asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide a strategic planning document for electronic monitoring that identifies the council’s electronic monitoring management objective of collecting at-sea discard estimates from the 40-foot to 57.5-foot individual fishing quota fleet.

In her testimony to the council, Kodiak fish harvester Theresa Peterson, representing the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said that while AMCC supports observer program restructuring, there are concerns regarding the 2012 annual deployment plan.

“Fisheries with PSC concerns, including Chinook salmon, halibut and tanner crab, and management needs for accurate PSC counts should be prioritized for higher coverage levels,” Peterson said. “Coverage rates should be adjusted by taking coverage from the previously unobserved vessels with less PSC concerns, consistent with the promised ‘low and slow’ approach,” she said.

“It is apparent from the application of an ‘equal probability sampling’ plan that fisheries that have higher interaction rates with species of concern will not have higher coverage rates. This runs directly counter both to the council specific goals and objectives for the observer program and the public expectations of the improvements in data collection which result in the new program,” Peterson said. Such an approach completely disregards the 20 years of data collected by the observer program and virtually wipes the slate clean, she said. “We have significant understanding of how different gear types interact with the marine environment and we need to incorporate that knowledge with the deployment plan.”

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, asked the council to implement a limited pilot program approach for the next three to five years for deployment of observers on fixed gear vessels previously without observers, “with the goal of identifying and resolving, if possible, the logistical challenges of human observer deployment.”

“We ask that the pilot program remain in effect until an integrated electronic monitoring program is developed and implemented as a viable alternative to meet at-sea monitoring requirements,” Behnken said in written testimony.

“At the core of ALFA’s concern with the deployment plan is our certainty that the restructured observer program defined by its deployment plan will drive substantial quota share consolidation in the small boat fleet without improving catch accounting in any fleet.”

United Catcher Boats asked the council to initiate an emergency rule to provide an exemption to the fee-based system for vessels participating in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island Pacific cod catcher vessel trawl fishery for the first half of 20133, to allow vessel owners the choice of participating in the pay-as-you-go original program and have observer coverage all the time, rather than be placed in the new fee-based program.

Freezer Longliners
In addition the council gave freezer longline vessel owners approval to replace or rebuild their fleet to a greater length, which will make the vessels more market competitive and safer. The average age of these vessels is more than 40 years old.

In his testimony to the council Kenny Down, executive director of the Freezer Longline Coalition, noted that as he was speaking his son Jake was working on board one of those vessels. “We need to move forward for the safety of kids like my son Jake,” he said.

It will take a while though.

Now that the council has approved the replacements and upgrades, the National Marine Fisheries Service must write the regulations to adjust the maximum length overall specified on the License Limitation Program license assigned to the freezer longline vessels to accommodate larger replacement vessels.

Each LLP license is endorsed for management areas, catcher vessel and/or catcher processor operation type, and the Pacific cod fixed gear target fishery, and specifies maximum length overall for licensed vessels. The maximum length for the license was based on the length of the vessels initially receiving the license.

The plan approved by the council would modify to 220 feet the maximum length of LLP licenses with catcher processor and hook-and-line Pacific cod endorsements for the Bering Sea or Aleutian Islands. LLP license holders with catcher processor and pot cod endorsements will have 36 months from the date the plan is implemented to either surrender the pot cod endorsements and receive an LLP license at 110 feet maximum or the current LLP length restriction would continue to apply.

Jennifer Lincoln, an injury epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), like Kenny Down, addressed safety issues regarding freezer longliners. She noted that the US Coast Guard and freezer longline sector worked together to develop a safety program – the Alternative Compliance and Safety Agreement - tailored to mitigate the risks found on these vessels, and to significantly upgrade the safety regime associated with them.

The jointly developed program focused primarily on hull condition and water tight integrity, prevention of down flooding, vessel stability, fire prevention, preventative maintenance for machinery, and significantly enhanced emergency training lifesaving, and fire fighting capabilities.

To date, 28 of the 33 active freezer longline vessels are fully compliant with the compliance and safety agreement, she said.

Newly constructed freezer longliners would be inherently safer than their 40-plus year old counterparts, Lincoln said. And several safety improvements related to crew licensing and vessel manning would be triggered as vessel size increases, she said

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