Pacific Council News Fall 2019: Highly Migratory Species

Regional fisheries management organizations discuss bluefin tuna stock status, allocations

In September the Council recommended that U.S. Commissioners to the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) negotiate an equitable allocation of harvest opportunity for Pacific bluefin tuna between the Eastern Pacific Ocean and the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. The WCPFC is a treaty-based organization established to conserve and manage tuna and other highly migratory fish stocks across the western and central areas of the Pacific Ocean.

The Northern Committee of the WCPFC is mainly relevant to the Council’s highly migratory species. In September, for the first time, it met on the West Coast (in Portland). Up to now, every meeting but one has been held in Japan. This gave Council members and highly migratory species advisory body members a chance to observe its proceedings.

Although Pacific bluefin is very depleted, the stock is recovering thanks to country- and fishery-specific catch limits meant to spur rebuilding. Japan’s fisheries account for most of the Pacific bluefin catch, and Japan has pushed hard to have catch limits increased in line with stock recovery projections. The U.S and other countries have insisted on a more cautious approach. This year, as a compromise, the Joint Working Group (which coordinates Pacific bluefin management between the WCPFC, the Northern Committee, and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission) recommended that Taiwan be allowed to transfer a portion of its unused catch limit to Japan for 2020, and that Japan be allowed to roll over a larger portion of its unused 2019 catch limit into next year. 

In the Eastern Pacific, the current Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission’s (IATTC) bluefin tuna measure applies through the end of 2020, so next year’s meeting will be of heightened interest as a new measure for 2021 and beyond must be adopted. The IATTC is responsible for the conservation and management of tuna and other marine resources in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean (ISC) will complete a new benchmark stock assessment for Pacific bluefin in 2020, evaluating several scenarios that model the effect of catch limit increases over the next 20 years. These projections would support decisions by managers next year about possible across-the-board increases. Over the long term, in line with stock recovery, the U.S. is likely to push for increases that achieve a better balance of fishing opportunity between the Western and Eastern Pacific.

Council takes final action on management measures for deep-set buoy gear 

Since 2016 the Council has been working on a package of management measures for a new, low bycatch fishing gear for swordfish: deep-set buoy gear. Simultaneously, the Council has been reviewing, and NMFS issuing, exempted fishing permits (EFPs) to test this gear. This exempted fishing has provided valuable data to gauge the commercial viability and environmental effects of this new gear.

The September meeting was the culmination of Council deliberations; it adopted a package of management measures that include definitions of two gear configurations, standard and linked; restrictions on where the gear can be used (in Federal waters off of California and Oregon); requirements on the use of the gear, such as “active tending;” and perhaps most contentious, a limited entry permit system to fish in the Southern California Bight (defined as Federal waters east of 120° 28’ 18” W. longitude, or Point Conception). 

The Council’s final proposal adopted all the elements of its preliminary preferred alternative from November 2018 (See Winter 2018 Newsletter) with some modest refinements mainly related to the process for issuing limited entry permits. To support the Council’s decision, NMFS provided a Preliminary Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), which describes the Council’s preferred alternative, along with other alternatives the Council considered, and assesses the anticipated environmental effects stemming from using this new gear. NMFS plans to publish the DEIS for public comment in 2020, incorporating additional data from gear use under EFPs in 2019. Implementing a new gear, and especially a limited entry permit process, requires a long and involved regulatory process, so the regulations are unlikely to be finalized before 2021 at the earliest. Once in place, West Coast fishermen will be able to use this environmentally friendly gear to supply fresh, high quality swordfish to markets, reducing our reliance on less well-managed foreign fisheries.

Council recommends exempted fishing permit on use of deep-set buoy gear at night 

In September the Council approved an exempted fishing permit application submitted by Nathan Perez and Thomas Carson to fish a modified configuration of both standard and linked night-set buoy gear (fishing the gear at night). The Council recommended that National Marine Fisheries Service issue the permit with a 100 percent observer coverage requirement.

So far EFP holders have been required to use deep-set buoy gear during the day, when swordfish stay well below the surface, following their food sources’ daily migration from below the thermocline during daylight to nearer the surface at night. Other gear types that target swordfish at night present a higher risk of bycatch of other species, including protected species. (Deep-set buoy gear has a number of characteristics that make it low-bycatch gear, including the ability to quickly retrieve the gear and release unwanted species in good condition.)

Perez and Carson propose testing the gear at night during winter months. Researchers have tested the gear at night at shallow depths, but found catch was dominated by blue sharks, an undesirable species. However, according to Perez and Carson, anglers using rod and reel have found it possible to catch swordfish at night at about 300 feet, suggesting that deep-set buoy gear could be effective while staying out of the high bycatch daytime surface zone. The proponents argue that night use in December and January could increase the economic viability of the gear.

It is hoped that the EFP will result in useful information to make the gear more economically attractive without compromising its environmentally-friendly characteristics.