Pacific Council News Spring 2020: Salmon and halibut

A salmon troller out at sea
Salmon troller Seamaid off Northern Oregon Coast. Photo: NOAA

2020 Salmon seasons set

In April the Council adopted ocean salmon season recommendations that provide recreational and commercial opportunities for most of the Pacific coast, and achieve conservation goals for the numerous individual salmon stocks on the West Coast. Due to the COVID-19 social distancing requirements, all meetings associated with the decision were held via webinar for the first time in the Council’s history.

The recommendations were forwarded to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for approval by May 6, 2020. “This year’s package includes some very restrictive seasons in both commercial and recreational fisheries along much of the coast,” said Council Chair Phil Anderson. “Uncertainties associated with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on markets, angler effort, and critical catch sampling, coupled with low Chinook and coho forecasts, made structuring the fisheries even more challenging this year.”

The Council heard reports from commercial, recreational, and tribal representatives about the challenges created by the pandemic, including difficulties in selling seafood to reduced markets, recreational fishery closures to protect public health, needed access to traditional food sources for tribal communities, and the inability to plan for the near future.

Final Southern Resident Killer Whale risk assessment due in June

In March the Council approved the ad hoc Southern Resident Killer Whale Workgroup’s draft risk assessment. A final version, incorporating an executive summary and minor edits, is expected by June.

The Workgroup has been assessing the effects of Council-area ocean salmon fisheries on the Chinook salmon prey base of southern Resident killer whales. This assessment will help inform the NMFS Biological Opinion (BiOp) on the effects of Council-area ocean salmon fisheries on the whales’ Chinook salmon prey base. The Workgroup has begun developing recommendations for management measures based on the Risk Assessment, which will go out to the Salmon Advisory Subpanel and the public for review before the Council gives its final recommendations for a long term BiOp in November. 

This topic is tentatively scheduled for the June, September, and November Council meetings. The next Workgroup meeting is April 28 via webinar. For meeting schedules, materials, and other information, see the NMFS webpage dedicated to the workgroup.

On a related note, a one-year BiOp will be in effect for 2020, using criteria described in the NMFS guidance letter.  That guidance focused mainly on Chinook stocks in the area north of Cape Falcon, Oregon, as those are the stocks NMFS is most concerned about when abundances are critically low.  NMFS guidance stated that if the 2020 forecasted Chinook abundance in the area north of Cape Falcon was equal to or less than average of the seven lowest years of abundance, then the Council should take precautionary conservation measures for all ocean salmon fisheries that affect that Chinook abundance to benefit the whales. The Council adopted 2020 ocean salmon management measures in April (see related article), which were well within the 2020 BiOp requirements.

Council considers new management approach for southern
Oregon/northern California coho

The Council initiated a process to consider a new management approach for southern Oregon/northern California coast coho. The new approach was proposed by NMFS in response to a court mediation agreement with the Hoopa Valley Tribe, which alleged that NMFS had failed to reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultation on the impacts of ocean salmon fisheries on the stock.The Council formed an ad-hoc workgroup to develop a harvest control rule for Southern Oregon/Northern California coast coho. NMFS provided draft terms of reference and a timeline, which indicates Council final action on a recommendation to NMFS at the November 2021 Council meeting.

Methodology for Willapa Bay coho forecast review approved

Each year the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) and the Salmon Technical Team (STT) review the methodology used in assessing salmon stocks to ensure that any new or modified methods are using the best available science.  

Last September, the Council approved a review of the approach used to forecast the abundance of Willapa Bay natural coho. Unlike most natural coho stocks in Washington state, Willapa Bay natural coho are not listed under the Endangered Species Act, nor managed under an international agreement.  Therefore, Federal law requires that the Council establish an acceptable biological catch and annual catch limit on the stock.  These figures are typically reported in terms of spawner escapement, which relies on forecasted abundances when seasons are being considered for the upcoming year. 

After a full review by the SSC and STT, the Council adopted a new methodology to forecast Willapa Bay natural coho abundance. The methodology was developed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and is used to forecast other stocks of coho in Washington. It uses an estimate of freshwater smolt production and marine survival and is adjusted for assumed hatchery straying. The SSC approved these data and methods as the best available scientific information for the stock. See the methodology document for more details.

Area 2A halibut exploitable yield is same as last year

The Area 2A (Washington, Oregon, and California) total catch exploitable yield is 1.65 million pounds, which provides for an expected fishery catch exploitable yield of 1.5 million pounds, the same as in 2019. These values reflect the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s unanimous approval of maintaining fixed harvestable levels in Area 2A for four years (2019-2022) unless a conservation concern emerges. 

The decision came at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which was held in Anchorage, Alaska, on February 3-7, 2020. The meeting focused on recent surveys and current stock status, the risks and benefits involved with specific harvest choices, and methods for distributing coastwide yield to regulatory areas. 

IPHC Assistant Director Steve Keith provided a summary of the annual meeting to the Council in March. Keith will be retiring in 2020, and the Council thanked him for working with them over the years on halibut-related topics. Phil Anderson, the Council’s representative to the IPHC, attended the annual meeting, along with a number of Area 2A stakeholders including tribal, state agency, and industry representatives. He summarized the discussions and results of the meeting for the Council, including an update from the Management Strategy Advisory Board on progress made in developing a long-term plan focused on IPHC’s harvest strategy policy. 

Incidental catch recommendations: options for the salmon troll
and final recommendations for fixed-gear sablefish fisheries 

Primary sablefish fishery north of Point Chehalis

Total Area 2A halibut quota is large enough this year to provide for incidental halibut harvest in the commercial primary fixed-gear sablefish fishery north of Point Chehalis.  This incidental fishery is allocated a portion of the Washington sport allocation when the Area 2A allocation is large enough. In 2020, the maximum allocation is 70,000 pounds.

The 2020 incidental halibut catch restrictions in the fixed-gear fishery north of Point Chehalis will be set at 200 pounds of dressed weight halibut for every 1,000 pounds dressed weight of sablefish, plus two additional halibut in excess of the ratio. In 2019 the limit started at 200 pounds plus two, but was changed to 250 pounds plus two in July 2019.  The objective for the landing limit is to ….

2020 Salmon troll fishery 

Salmon troll license holders may land no more than one Pacific halibut per two Chinook, except one Pacific halibut may be landed without meeting the ratio requirement, and no more than 35 halibut landed per trip. Halibut retention is open May 1, 2020, through the end of the 2020 salmon troll fishery, unless modified by inseason action.  In 2021, halibut retention will start no earlier than April 1, until modified through inseason action or superseded by 2021 management measures. 

In 2019 the possession limit started at 25 in April, then changed to 35 on May 1 (the same as in 2020), but was changed through inseason action three times in July to ensure the halibut quota was not exceeded.

Council takes another step toward shifting halibut management

In March the Council took another step toward shifting management of the non-Indian directed commercial Pacific halibut fishery from the International Pacific Halibut Commission to the Council and NMFS. The Council approved a purpose and need statement and scope of action for the transfer, and approved a range of alternatives described in the Project Team report with only minor adjustments. The alternatives included preseason and inseason management issues for the non-Indian directed commercial fishery, permitting for the directed fishery as well as other commercial and charter fisheries, and other administrative issues. 

Last September, the Council sent a letter to the International Pacific Halibut Commission outlining its plans to pursue the management transition. In November, the Council identified a three-meeting process to solicit industry input and public comment as this topic progresses.  This year the Council is tentatively scheduled to approve preliminary preferred alternatives in September and to adopt a final preferred alternative in November.

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