Pacific Council News Spring 2020: Groundfish

Council tackles large list of inseason adjustments, including shorebased carryover 

Yellowtail rockfish near a coral formation
Yellowtail rockfish with boot sponges (NOAA)

In April, the Council heard from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), and members of the Groundfish Advisory Subpanel on the unfolding impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on fishing communities. A report from the Groundfish Management Team (GMT) summarized the limited information available regarding disruptions to West Coast fisheries. 

Noting that West Coast fishing communities are economically and socially linked to year-round groundfish fisheries, an analytical team from ODFW and CDFW explored whether modifications to existing trip limits and rockfish conservation area boundaries could provide relief to limited entry fixed gear and open access groundfish fisheries. Their findings suggest changing certain trip limits and making minor modifications to RCA boundaries could help those fisheries in the near term. 

The Council adopted the proposed adjustments despite the fact that the GMT had insufficient time to review them. NMFS agreed to review the adjustments and respond as able, considering agency workload, supporting analyses, and the Council record.

Council takes emergency action on whiting sector in response to COVID-19 concerns

In April the Council took emergency action to add an agenda item for mothership/catcher-processor seasonal processing limitations to its agenda. The addition came in response to requests from its Groundfish Advisory Subpanel and the public to modify 2020 mothership and catcher-processer transfer rules in West Coast at-sea Pacific whiting fisheries. 

The industry was concerned about the ability of available mothership platforms to receive and process Pacific whiting this year. A mothership processor decided to abandon that sector at the end of March to reduce its risk associated with the current COVID-19 pandemic, leaving three catcher vessels in the mothership sector without a processing platform. This meant potentially stranding 24 percent of the entire mothership whiting sector’s quota, with an ex-vessel value of approximately $5 million. 

In response, the Council recommended that NMFS allow an at-sea Pacific whiting processing platform to operate as both a mothership and a catcher-processor in the same calendar year during the 2020 Pacific whiting fishery. This mitigates the impacts associated with the current processing limitations in these two sectors.

Six groundfish exempted fishing permits move forward for consideration in June

In March the Council reviewed exempted fishing permits (EFPs) submitted last November, which have since been revised. The Coastal Conservation Association California/Okuma Fishing Tackle withdrew its EFP proposal, for which 7 mt of cowcod had been set aside in November. An electronic monitoring EFP proposal expected in March was not submitted, but the Council left open the opportunity for such a proposal at a future meeting.  The EFP proponents remaining under consideration are: West Coast Seafood Processors Association, Oregon Trawl Commission, Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, and Environmental Defense Fund; California Department of Fish and Wildlife; San Francisco Community Fishing Association & Dan Platt; Scott Cook; Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; and Real Good Fish and Environmental Defense Fund

In June, when the Council finalizes its groundfish specifications and EFP recommendations, it will reconsider the revised EFPs (and possible increases in southern cowcod requests for EFPs) along with public comment.

Biennial harvest specifications and management measures set for 2021-2022 fisheries

Harvest specifications

In April the Council adopted final 2021 and 2022 harvest specifications (overfishing limits, acceptable biological catches, and annual catch limits [ACLs]) for all actively-managed west coast groundfish stocks and stock complexes.

The Council adopted “No Action” alternatives for all stocks, except for cowcod south of 40°10’ N. lat., sablefish, black rockfish in Oregon, and shortbelly rockfish. The No-Action alternative uses the same uncertainty and precautionary policy parameters used in the previous biennium, but applies them to updated biomass estimates. The Council selected ACLs that were more liberal than the No Action alternative for sablefish, black rockfish in Oregon, and shortbelly rockfish.  A more conservative ACL was adopted for cowcod south of 40°10’ N. lat.

The alternatives can be found in tables 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, and 2.5 in the draft environmental assessment, except for the shortbelly rockfish ACL, for which the Council adopted an ACL of 2,000 mt.  

These new harvest specifications are expected to be put in place on January 1, 2021, pending NMFS approval.

Management measures

The Council also adopted the preliminary preferred management measures for 2021 and 2022 as specified in this tribal report, this Groundfish Management Team (GMT) report, and a second GMT report. Management measures generally consist of changes to rockfish conservation area boundaries, allocation measures such as annual catch targets, set-asides, etc., accountability measures, commercial trip limits, and recreational season and bag limits.

The Council adjusted one GMT recommendation to increase the widow rockfish non-trawl allocation from 300 mt to 400 mt, directed the GMT to develop an annual catch target for shortbelly rockfish that would close a portion of the trawl fleet upon attainment, and adopted a 50 mt annual catch target for cowcod as a preliminary preferred alternative. 

The Council is scheduled to adopt final management measures in June.

New stock assessment shows Pacific whiting stock is healthy

A new assessment shows the whiting stock is healthy, with a 65 percent depletion rate (65% of unfished biomass). Estimated biomass fell to a low of 33 percent in 2010, and peaked in 2013 and 2014 due to a very large 2010 year class and an above average 2008 year class. The estimated biomass has declined since 2017, during a time of record catches. As expected, the strong 2010 and 2014 cohorts have decreased due to relatively high exploitation and natural mortality.  

The assessment results were part of an April briefing to the Council by Frank Lockhart (NMFS), who also discussed the U.S.-Canada whiting treaty decision-making process.  

The Joint Management Committee, the decision-making body in the U.S.-Canada whiting treaty process, failed to reach agreement on a coastwide total annual catch (TAC).  Therefore, NMFS will be proposing a U.S. TAC of 575,000 mt through a rulemaking process. The Council did not offer recommendations on a U.S. TAC as the NMFS-proposed TAC was not made available to the Council at its April meeting.  The 2020 whiting fishery is scheduled to begin on May 15, pending the NMFS rulemaking.

Electronic monitoring program review

In December, the Council asked NMFS to delay implementation of electronic monitoring (EM) regulations until January 1, 2022, and to consider extending EM exempted fishing permits so the Council could continue developing the program. However, NMFS did not approve the request, so the regulations will go into effect January 1, 2021.

The Council is considering changes to the regulations to ensure that once the program is implemented, it is cost effective and flexible. In April, the Council reviewed some NMFS proposed regulation changes and a new procedural directive with a timeline for retaining and storing EM data, and adopted potential regulatory changes for public review:

  • Increase the deadline for vessel operators to submit hard drives containing EM recordings to 72 hours after an offload begins.
  • Require that EM data be removed before reusing hard drives only if end-to-end encryption is not used.
  • Remove the limit on switching between observers and EM for whiting vessels. 
  • Remove the requirement for a mothership/catcher vessel endorsement to use EM on mothership catcher vessel trips.
  • Allow EM providers to receive and enter logbook information, rather than going through NMFS. 
  • Require deadlines for EM service provider reports of technical assistance, logbook data, vessel operator feedback, EM summary and data compliance reports, and other reports, as specified elsewhere. 
  • Change the implementation date for both the electronic monitoring provider permits and responsibilities and the vessel and first receiver responsibilities to no earlier than January 1, 2022 in the amended regulations.

The Council recommended continuing EM exempted fishing permits until the amended regulations go into effect. It also recommended that NMFS review the EM Program Guidelines and Provider Manual to make sure they are consistent with the NMFS Procedural Directive for retaining and storing EM data. The Council is expected to finalize its recommendations at the June 2020 Council meeting.

Council adopts tentative list of stocks for assessment in 2021, 2023

Bank rockfish, brown rockfish, copper rockfish, Dover sole, lingcod, petrale sole, squarespot rockfish, vermilion and sunset rockfishes, and yellowtail rockfish are candidates for full assessment in 2021. Dover sole may instead be assessed using a data-moderate approach, petrale sole may receive an update assessment, and vermilion and sunset rockfishes will be assessed as a complex.

Darkblotched rockfish, sablefish, and spiny dogfish are back-up candidates for full assessment in 2021 if the other stocks are determined to be a lesser priority. A final decision will be made at the June Council meeting. Sablefish is a candidate stock for an update assessment in 2021, and black rockfish and quillback rockfish are candidate stocks for full assessment in 2023.

The Council also adopted a draft terms of reference for the groundfish and coastal pelagic species stock assessment review process in 2021 and 2022, and recommended no changes to terms of reference for groundfish rebuilding analysis and methodology reviews.

The Council is scheduled to take final action on the assessment plans in June.

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