Pacific Council News Summer 2019: Highly migratory species

Highly migratory species shorts

Deep-set buoy gear: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) presented an analysis of the biological impacts of a deep-set buoy gear fishery in June. The data comes from observer records and logbooks for deep-set buoy gear exempted fishing permit activity from 2015 through early 2019, and shows how many targeted and non-targeted species were caught with deep-set buoy gear during that period (see Table 1). The Council plans to choose a final preferred alternative on deep-set buoy gear in September. It has identified potential socioeconomic effects stemming from the number of permits that would be issued to fish in the Southern California Bight under the Council’s proposed  limited entry program. An analysis of these potential effects would help the Council decide in September how many limited entry permits should be issued for this new fishery, assuming it moves forward.

Final rule on commercial Pacific bluefin tuna: On May 2, 2019, NMFS published a final rule implementing Inter-American Tropical Tuna Committee resolutions on Pacific bluefin tuna. The final rule includes catch limits for U.S. commercial vessels that fish for Pacific bluefin tuna in the eastern Pacific Ocean during 2019 and 2020. The rule implements a 630 metric ton (mt) catch limit for both years combined, with catch not to exceed 425 mt in a single year, and establishes a trip limit of 15 mt until catch is within 50 mt of the catch limit, and a 2 mt trip limit when catch is within 50 mt of the catch limit.

The final rule also creates reporting requirements. When the trip limit is 15 mt, purse seine vessel owners or operators must submit a pre-trip notification to NMFS 24 hours before starting a trip that will result in landing more than 2 mt of Pacific bluefin tuna (in other words, more than 2 mt of Pacific bluefin tuna may not be landed unless NMFS received a pre-trip notification). The rule also implements new procedures for taking inseason action. Legal notices for inseason actions will be posted on the NOAA Fisheries website, which will be followed up by radio call broadcasted by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

In addition, as of July 1, 2019, fish buyers will be required to submit electronic landings receipts with Pacific bluefin tuna landings in California ports using the “E-tix” system within 24 hours of landing.

West Coast bluefin tuna harvest strategy: In 2018, the Council directed its advisory bodies to bring forward ideas for a long-term harvest strategy for Pacific bluefin tuna, and in May, NMFS hosted a meeting with stakeholders to discuss the future of the bluefin commercial fishery on the west coast. This NMFS report  includes a summary of discussions at the meeting along with a process to allow the Council to contribute to future Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) Pacific bluefin tuna resolutions.

Sea turtle bycatch: The United States plans to submit a proposal to strengthen the IATTC’s existing sea turtle bycatch resolution (C-07-03), recognizing that this would require foreign fleets to take measures that are similar to those currently required by U.S. pelagic longline vessels, such as use of circle hooks and finfish bait.

Management strategy evaluations: The International Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-Like Species in the North Pacific Ocean is conducting management strategy evaluations for North Pacific albacore and Pacific bluefin tuna. In June the Council reiterated its support of U.S. stakeholder participation in these processes. 

Bluefin tuna meetings. The Council agreed to fund travel costs for two Highly Migratory Species Management Team members and four Highly Migratory Species Advisory Subpanel members to attend the Pacific bluefin IATTC-Northern Committee Joint Working Group and Northern Committee meetings during the week of September 2, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. This will allow advisory bodies to better understand the regional fishery management organization process and communicate those lessons to the Council.

Drift gillnet performance. Each June, the Council receives a report from its Highly Migratory Species Management Team (HMSMT) comparing estimated bycatch of prohibited species in the large mesh drift gillnet fishery against historical benchmark levels. According to the latest report, in 2016, take of northern right whale dolphins slightly exceeded the benchmark level, while in 2017 take of risso’s dolphin and sperm whale exceeded the benchmark. In its report the HMSMT also described an alternative way to assess bycatch in the fishery. This method, which was reviewed by the Scientific and Statistical Committee in 2018, will be used at the June 2020 Council meeting.

Yellowfin tuna regulations discussed

Additional yellowfin tuna regulations are not needed at this time, the Council concluded in June. In 2018 NMFS notified the Council that the Eastern Pacific Ocean stock of yellowfin tuna was subject to overfishing, and that the Council must make recommendations by November 2018 to address the problem. The overfishing determination was based on a 2018 IATTC stock assessment which found that the fishing level was just barely over the level that defines this condition. The IATTC completed a new assessment in 2019, but there are major uncertainties about the results, meaning that NMFS is unlikely to consider it the “best scientific information available.” 

Because West Coast catch of yellowfin is a tiny proportion of total eastern Pacific Ocean catch, the Council concluded that additional constraints in West Coast fisheries aren’t needed now. In terms of international action, the Council focused its recommendations on efforts to make sure next year’s IATTC “benchmark” assessment produces reliable results. To that end the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee met with the IATTC staff scientists who worked on the assessment to identify potential improvements.

Seventeen exempted fishing permits forwarded

The Council reviewed 18 deep-set buoy gear exempted fishing permit (EFP) applications submitted for the June Council meeting and forwarded 17 applications to NMFS for issuance. It also preliminarily approved an EFP for night-set buoy gear under 100 percent observer coverage, with a final recommendation coming in September.

Beyond considering these new applications, the Council recommended that NMFS renew the current twenty-one standard deep-set buoy gear and ten linked deep-set buoy gear EFPs for 2020. Since many previously reviewed and recommended permit applications haven’t been issued, the Council asked NMFS to put the current batch of applications at the head of the line. 

Other EFPs reviewed in 2017 and 2018 haven’t been issued because the applicant hasn’t followed through on steps needed for NMFS to issue a permit. For that reason, the Council recommended that NMFS stop considering these applications if the applicant hasn’t followed through by the end of this year.

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