Pacific Council News Spring 2019: Groundfish

Changes to groundfish essential fish habitat, Rockfish Conservation Areas approved

In March the Council approved sending groundfish fishery management plan Amendment 28 for Secretarial review. Amendment 28 incorporates changes to groundfish essential fish habitat, trawl rockfish conservation areas, deepwater bottom contact gear closures, and other groundfish fishery and habitat protections. The Council also amended a previous motion to align the Arago Reef eastern boundary with the state waters boundary, and asked the Project Team to consider how best to survey interested persons to gather “lessons learned” and recommendations for future groundfish essential fish habitat reviews.

In addition, the Council approved a new Council Operating Procedure 22 (COP 22), which describes how essential fish habitat reviews for all fishery management plans will be conducted. Final approval of COP 22 is scheduled for this September after advisory body review.

Council makes inseason adjustments, discusses quota carryover, lingcod, blackcod, exempted fishing permit

In March, the Council directed the Groundfish Management Team (GMT) to examine adjustments to commercial non-trawl fixed trip limits for minor nearshore rockfish species, excluding black rockfish, in California; and recreational bag limits for canary and black rockfish. The GMT found that trip limits could be increased for the limited entry fixed gear and open access fisheries.

The GMT also examined proposed bag limit changes to canary and black rockfish recreational bag limits, and found that it was unlikely that increasing the sub-bag limit by one fish for each species would result in harvest guidelines being exceeded.

As a result, the Council recommended the following inseason adjustments for the remainder of the current 2019/2020 biennium:

California commercial limited-entry fixed-gear and open access nearshore rockfish fisheries:

  • For 42° 00’ N. lat. to 40° 10’ N. lat., increase the minor nearshore rockfish (other than black rockfish) sub-limit to 1,500 lbs per two months as soon as possible.
  • For 40° 10’ N. lat. to the Mexico Border, increase the deeper nearshore rockfish trip-limit to 1,200 lbs per two months beginning with trip Period 3 (May-June). Period two (March-April) will remain closed.

California recreational fisheries:

  • Increase the California canary rockfish (Sebastes pinniger) sub-bag limit from two to three fish within the overall 10-fish bag limit as soon as possible.
  • Increase the California black rockfish (Sebastes melanops) sub-bag limit from three to four fish within the overall 10-fish bag limit as soon as possible.

Shorebased Individual Fishing Quota Surplus Carryover

In April, the Council recommended that NMFS issue the maximum amount of carryover quota pounds into the shorebased individual fishing quota program for 2019 for all eligible species. This is usually done in March, but due to the partial government shutdown, NMFS was unable to finalize the data needed to evaluate the remaining 2018 surplus.

Up to 10 percent of the used and unused quota pounds in a vessel’s account may be carried over from one year to the next. However, NMFS will not issue surplus carryover quota pounds for species that have annual catch limits established equal to their acceptable biological catches.

Platt/Emley Exempted Fishing Permit

The applicant of the Platt-Emley exempted fishing permit (EFP) notified NMFS that the EFP was missing the requested 1.5 mt of lingcod for south of 40° 10′ N. lat. The Council reviewed the issue and recommended that one metric ton of lingcod be reallocated to the EFP from the south of 40° 10′ N. lat. research set-aside and 0.5 mt from the Incidental Open Access sector, totaling 1.5 mt annually for 2019 and 2020.


The Council reviewed updated projections for lingcod south of 40° 10′ N. lat. The findings showed increasing commercial limited entry fixed gear and open access trip limits, as well as recreational bag limits, could be adjusted for this area.

For lingcod south of 40° 10′ N. lat., the Council adopted the following adjustments to commercial and recreational fisheries for the remainder of 2019 and 2020. The Council recommended these adjustments go into effect by June 1:

  • Increase lingcod trip limits for the limited entry fishery south of 40° 10’ N. lat. to 1,200 lbs per two-month trip period for the remainder of 2019 and 2020.
  • Increase lingcod trip limits for the open access fishery south of 40° 10’ N. lat. to 500 lbs per month for the remainder of 2019 and 2020.

For the recreational fishery south of 40° 10′ N. lat., the recreational bag limit was increased to two lingcod for the remainder of 2019 and 2020, effective June 1.

Blackgill Rockfish

The GMT investigated the possibility of increasing limited entry fixed gear and open access trip limits for blackgill rockfish. Their analysis showed increasing trip limits would provide more opportunity to the fleet. Therefore, the Council adopted new blackgill trip limits for the two fisheries south of 40° 10′ N. lat. In the limited entry fixed gear fishery, limits were increased to 4,000 lbs./2 months, and in the open access fishery to 800 lbs./ 2 months.

Council adopts preferred alternative for seabird mitigation measures

In April the Council adopted its preliminary preferred alternative responding to the 2017 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biological Opinion (BiOp) on short-tailed albatross take in commercial groundfish longline fisheries.

Under the preliminary preferred alternative, non-tribal commercial vessels that are 26 feet and longer and use bottom longline gear to catch groundfish in Federal waters would be required to either use streamer lines according to the Alaska streamer line specifications or to deploy gear at night. (This includes vessels fishing in the limited entry and open access fixed gear fisheries or those fishing with longline gear under the gear switching provisions of shorebased individual fishing quota program.) This action would extend the current requirement for vessels 55 feet and longer to smaller vessels, although night setting would be a new option available to the larger vessels as well. The requirement for larger vessels was implemented in 2015 based on a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service BiOp.

Commercial groundfish longline vessels would be exempt from these requirements when fishing south of 36° N. lat. Vessels using floated mainline gear, if not using streamer lines that are at least 300 feet in length, could only deploy gear between one hour after local sunset and one hour before local sunrise.

For vessels between 26 and 55 feet, the use of streamer lines would be discretionary during a Small Craft Wind Advisory (sustained winds or frequent gusts ranging between 25 and 33 knots), or more severe weather conditions. This sets a different, lower threshold for discretionary use compared to the current requirement for larger vessels.

The Council is slated to adopt its final preferred alternative in June. NMFS intends to finalize regulations implementing these requirements by the beginning of 2020.

Council adopts alternatives for salmon mitigation measures in groundfish fishery

In April the Council adopted a range of alternatives to address the 2017 NMFS Biological Opinion to mitigate salmonid interactions in the groundfish fishery.

The BiOp assessed the continued impact of groundfish fisheries on seven listed Chinook salmon and four coho salmon evolutionary significant units (ESU) and concluded that they were not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of these ESUs.

The BiOp required 25 actions that the Council and/or NMFS must comply with within three years to avoid reinitiation. The Council successfully addressed a number of these terms and conditions as part of the 2019-2020 groundfish harvest specifications and management measures; however, two terms and conditions remained outstanding and required Council action.

One of the measures relates to the “reserve” of 3,500 Chinook. The Reserve would be available only as an emergency measure in case of unexpected high bycatch levels, and would be accessed only when a sector (whiting or non-whiting) exceeds its Chinook salmon bycatch guideline. It is not meant to be accessed as part of normal operations and reconsultation will be initiated if the reserve is accessed in three out of any five years. A sector may only access the reserve if the Council or NMFS has taken action to minimize Chinook salmon bycatch in that sector prior to reaching its Chinook salmon bycatch guideline.

The second measure required the Council to reexamine current salmon-bycatch mitigation measures. The Council examined block area closures, net types, and current industry-designed rules used by the whiting fleet to minimize Chinook bycatch. The range of alternatives [includes an analysis of] these measures, including an extension of any block area closure seaward to the western boundary of the Exclusive Economic Zone instead of the 250-fathom waypoint line.

Blackgill rockfish remains in Slope Rockfish complex

The Council will not remove blackgill rockfish from the Slope Rockfish complex south of 40° 10’ N. lat., as originally planned, given improved blackgill rockfish stock status and potential impacts to the trawl fishery.

Amendment 26 to the groundfish fishery management plan considered that action, in addition to changing the trawl/non-trawl allocations of blackgill rockfish and the remaining species in the southern Slope Rockfish complex.

At Council direction, the Groundfish Management Team explored higher non-trawl trip limits in April to provide greater access to blackgill rockfish (see article, inseason adjustments). Further, the Council discussed removing the formal trawl/non-trawl allocations for the southern Slope Rockfish complex from the fishery management plan and making biennial allocations in the 2021-2022 biennial specifications process.

NMFS reports on trawl catch share cost recovery program

Each year (usually in April) the Council receives a report from NMFS on the trawl catch share program cost recovery, which charges fees to industry to pay for administrative costs. The report covers costs and fee collections from the previous year along with fee rates for the current year.

Constituents have generally expressed a desire for more detail in these cost recovery reports, and Council and NMFS staff and industry representatives have met to discuss ways to increase transparency. In response to this year’s substantially improved report, the Council asked that NMFS explore ways to reduce observer and catch monitor costs, that Council analytical documents include an assessment of impacts of cost recovery prior to any future management actions affecting the trawl catch share fishery, and that NMFS continue to hold meetings with industry to evaluate the costs of the catch share program and make recommendations on where efficiencies can benefit both the fishing industry and NMFS.

New approach to prioritizing groundfish management takes shape

Groundfish management measures will be prioritized using a new process in the future. Rather than prioritizing actions every two years, there will now be a separate agenda item on new management measures at most meetings, under which staff will report on progress and the public may present new candidate measures.

This spring the Council identified several new management measures as top priorities for Council attention as soon as time becomes available. The items include non-trawl rockfish conservation area modifications, trawl/non-trawl Amendment 21 allocations, mothership sector utilization, and moving the midwater jig exempted fishing permit into regulation to allow its use within the non-trawl rockfish conservation area.

Groundfish shorts

Whiting stock healthy: A 2019 Pacific whiting assessment has indicated the stock is healthy at 64.1 percent of its unfished spawning biomass, which is slightly lower than estimated last year. The stock has remained at a relatively high abundance since 2013 due to the strength of large 2010 and 2014 cohorts. The 2019 coastwide total allowable catch of 597,500 mt is the same as in 2017 and 2018, resulting in an allocation of 441,433 mt for U.S. fisheries.

New sigma methodology: The Council has adopted new sigma values for groundfish and coastal pelagic species stocks recommended by the Scientific and Statistical Committee, including updated baseline sigma values and an increase in sigma due to stock assessment age. Sigma, coupled with the overfishing probability (P*), is used to determine acceptable biological catch buffers for these species. The sigma value addresses scientific uncertainty in estimating the overfishing limit, and varies by the uncertainty associated with the stock category and the age of the stock assessment.

Other science improvements: The Council accepted the recommendations of the Scientific and Statistical Committee and the Groundfish Management Team on science and methodology improvements that will inform future Council groundfish management decisions. The recommendations related to a “rockfish steepness prior” (recruitment productivity) to be used in 2019 stock assessments, a revised Accepted Practices Guidelines for Groundfish Stock Assessments document, which details accepted practices for conducting groundfish stock assessments this year, and additional sigma recommendations for determining the uncertainty in estimating overfishing limits using assessment projections older than ten years (see above). The 2009 greenstriped rockfish assessment is one of the rare cases where such a sigma consideration may apply.

Enhanced” VMS systems not allowed: “Non-type-approved” vessel monitoring system units will not be allowed in West Coast fisheries, based on a Council decision in April. In 2016, the Council recommended NMFS allow vessels to use less expensive “enhanced” VMS units that are not on the official list of NMFS-approved units. However, NMFS stated in April that the option to use enhanced VMS would increase agency costs to develop and maintain a new VMS program. Specifically, NMFS would need to establish a redundant infrastructure to accommodate both approved and non-approved units. NMFS will report in June on potential cost reductions in the VMS program.

The Council recommended that NMFS implement other measures and alternatives, including an increase in the VMS reporting rate from 1 to 4 times per hour, with some exceptions. Other measures allow vessels to change their fishery declarations while at sea, and allow pot gear vessels to move fishing gear to other management areas before returning to port to deliver their catch. 

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