Pacific Council News Fall 2020: Groundfish

A commercial fisherman fishing for sablefish.
Fishing for sablefish. Shutterstock/Photomatz

Primary fixed-gear sablefish fishery extended under emergency rule

Under an emergency action, NMFS is extending the primary (tier) limited entry fixed-gear sablefish fishery from October 31 to December 31, 2020 in response to requests from the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel, fishing industry, and members of the public.

A portion of this sablefish sector also participates in the Alaska sablefish fishery, where the COVID-19 pandemic affected observer coverage, required crew quarantines, and caused delays to the sablefish fishery. As a result, fishery participants were unable to return to the West Coast in time to fish in the same timeframe as they had in the past. This meant it was unlikely that they would attain their sablefish tier limits and could incur unsustainable economic losses. 

This issue met NMFS’ criteria for an emergency rule. Thus, based on comment from the GAP and stakeholder support, the Council recommended extending the sablefish tier fishery to provide the opportunity for tier vessels to attain their limits. 

The emergency action allows incidental Pacific halibut landings through noon local time on November 15 at a ratio of 250 lbs Pacific halibut to 1,000 lbs sablefish, with up to two additional Pacific halibut in excess of the ratio. This halibut landing period depends on it not interfering with inseason adjustments.

Council develops gear switching alternatives

The Council plans to consider modifying regulations on the use of fixed gear in the trawl individual fishing quota fishery (also known as gear switching). The alternatives being considered would limit gear switching for sablefish north of 36o N. lat.  In September, the Council adopted a purpose and need statement for this process.

There has been long-standing concern by some members of industry about the possible impact of gear switching on trawl allocation attainment (the ability of trawlers to harvest their full quota). Sablefish co-occur with most other fish that are harvested by trawlers, so the limit on sablefish also limits trawlers’ ability to catch other stocks. In particular, the Council is exploring whether the use of sablefish quota pounds by gear switchers is reducing the availability of sablefish quota pounds for trawlers who need sablefish for trips that harvest other species with which sablefish co-occur.  The Sablefish Area Management and Trawl Allocation Attainment Committee (SaMTAAC) was appointed in 2018 to advise the Council on the issue. 

The SaMTAAC provided a final report in June that included a “no action” alternative along with three action alternatives that would limit catch of northern sablefish while gear switching.

Of the action alternatives, one is based on issuing gear-specific northern sablefish quota pounds (trawl-only and unrestricted). A second action alternative is based on providing all trawl permitted vessels with an opportunity to do at least a small amount of gear switching and providing larger opportunities for permits with a to-be-determined amount of gear switching history.  Those permits would be issued gear switching endorsements.  The third alternative would allow all vessels actively using trawl gear to land up to 1 percent of the quota pounds using a nontrawl gear and a permit-based exemption to that requirement for vessels with a certain level of past gear switching.   

The total amount of gear switching expected under each alternative would vary depending on several factors in each alternative, such as qualifying requirements and gear switching limits. 

Groundfish management priorities set

In September the Council reviewed a list of proposed groundfish management measures

After hearing from the Groundfish Management Team and the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel, the Council revised the list of proposals it had prioritized last June (including mothership utilization, trawl/non-trawl Amendment 21 allocations, non-trawl rockfish conservation area modifications, and moving the Emley/Platt exempted fishing permit into regulation). The Council removed trawl/non-trawl Amendment 21 allocations from this list, noting that these allocations may be addressed in the next biennial management process. Gear switching and the limited entry fixed-gear permit stacking program review were added to the high priority list. 

On mothership utilization, the Council adopted a purpose and need statement for public review, and will continue to scope the GAP’s first four issues, related to the whiting season start date (which could affect all whiting sectors), processor obligation deadline, mothership processor cap, and mothership/catcher-processor permit transfers, for the area north of 42° N. latitude. 

The Council delayed consideration of at-sea processing south of 42° due to its potential impact on salmonids and other managed species. Instead, this issue may be explored through an exempted fishing permit as part of the 2023-2024 biennial management process.

Visual survey methods for nearshore groundfish adopted

The California and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife proposed, and the Council adopted, visual survey methods for nearshore groundfish stocks using remotely operated vehicles. The methods were endorsed by the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), and recommendations from the SSC and the Methodology Review Panel include a future workshop on standardizing survey techniques and analyses coastwide.  The SSC did not endorse the proposed length-based assessment methods pending further analysis and review.  The subsequent review of these methods by the SSC’s Groundfish Subcommittee is scheduled to occur on October 23 in time for consideration by the SSC and the Council at the Council’s virtual November meeting.

Inseason adjustments

The Council adopted inseason adjustments to increase sablefish daily trip limits for limited entry fixed gear (LEFG) and open access fisheries north of 36° N. lat., and to increase incidental Pacific halibut in the primary tier sablefish fishery north of Pt. Chehalis as follows:

  • increase the sablefish daily trip limit for the LEFG fishery north of 36° N. lat to 2,500 lbs./week, not to exceed 7,500 lbs./2 months 
  • increase the sablefish daily trip limit for the open access fishery north of 36° N. lat to 600 lbs./day, or one landing per week up to 2,000 lbs., not to exceed 4,000 lbs/ 2 months
  • increase retention amounts of incidental Pacific halibut in the primary tier sablefish fishery north of Point Chehalis, WA  from 200 to 250 lbs. of Pacific halibut per 1,000 lbs. of sablefish, and maintain the limit of up to two additional Pacific halibut in excess of the ratio.

The Council was briefed on errors pertaining to sablefish found by staff during their review of the draft 2021 and 2022 groundfish regulations. The sablefish annual catch limits and apportionment percentage for sablefish south of 36 N. lat. were entered into a set of tables incorrectly. It is important to note that these errors were typographical and did not affect management measure decisions, as analysts completed their work using the correct ACLs. After reviewing the errors, the Council adopted correct sablefish annual catch limits and have forwarded the corrections to NMFS, along with the inseason adjustment recommendations.

Council reviews draft conservation measures for humpback whales

At its September meeting the Council reviewed the draft conservation measures NMFS is considering as they complete work on the biological opinion (BiOp) on the effects of the groundfish fishery on humpback whales. 

The Council offered guidance to NMFS regarding these measures, asking NMFS to identify the degree to which they apply to the sablefish fishery. The Council also asked that NMFS return to the Council when the BiOp is completed and provide an update on its findings and recommendations.

NMFS originally prepared a BiOp on the take of humpback whales in the Pacific Coast groundfish fishery in 2012. That BiOp concluded the Pacific Coast groundfish fishery was likely to adversely affect, but not jeopardize the continued existence of, humpback whales.  However, in 2018 NMFS reinitiated Endangered Species Act consultation due to a change in the species listing, and because the groundfish fishery had exceeded its incidental take amount.

Previously, scientists believed that humpback whales were part of one global population. However, after much research, they determined the species is actually composed of fourteen distinct population groups. Three of these segments occur on the West Coast:  Mexico, Central America, and Hawaii – and of these three, one is considered threatened (Mexico) and one endangered (Central America). 

In addition to the new population status, there have been two documented takes of humpback whales in the groundfish fishery since 2012. One occurred in the limited entry fixed gear sablefish pot sector in 2014, and one in the open access fixed gear sablefish pot fishery in 2016. The take amounts are specifically listed in BiOps, and if exceeded, can trigger Agency action. In this case, NMFS determined the groundfish fishery exceeded the take amounts for this species and responded by reinitiating consultation.  NMFS is considering a suite of new conservation measures in addition to the current measures. These measures include fishing gear marking, a fixed gear logbook, and testing modifications to fishing gear.  NMFS will update the Council on its final recommendations when the new BiOp is completed.  At that time, the Council will discuss what actions may be needed to comply with the new BiOp.

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