Navy will report to NPFMC on GOA plans

Council establishes electronic monitoring as part of North Pacific Observer Program; halts GOA trawl bycatch management plan

U.S. Navy officials are scheduled to report to federal fisheries managers in Seattle in late January on Gulf of Alaska training exercises scheduled for early May, just before the start of the Copper River salmon fishery.

The Navy gave a similar presentation in Cordova in early December and was also to do a 30presentation in mid-January before the Alaska Marine Science Symposium.

Also on the agenda for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Seattle is an initial review of community development quota ownership caps and approval of renewal of the halibut deck sorting exempted fishing permit to allow on-deck sorting of Pacific halibut on non-pelagic trawl catcher processor vessels as a means of reducing halibut bycatch mortalities.

The council, during its December meeting in Anchorage, reviewed a presentation on the EFP application to allow that deck sorting.

Under the EFP, vessels may sort halibut removed from a cod-end on the deck, rather than routing halibut over the flow scale and below deck, and then release those fish back into the water after sampling halibut for length and condition, using International Pacific Halibut Commission mortality assessment methods. From May through mid-November, 12 boats participated in the EFP, and it was estimated that deck sorting under the EFP allowed for a halibut savings of 288 million tons.

The EFP granted to the Amendment 80 cooperatives and co-applicants expires at the end of April, and applicants and NMFS are working toward extending the EFP for another year.

Efforts to achieve a successful harvest of the targeted species while avoiding other fish, including prohibited species catches, is an ongoing challenge to the commercial fishing industry.

During its December meeting in Anchorage, the council received a final report on the exempted fishing permit for testing salmon excluder devices in the Eastern Bering Sea Pollock fisheries.

The excluder tested in this exempted fishing permit employs an “over and under” design that resulted in the successful escapement of 33 percent to 54 percent of salmon in the Gulf of Alaska Pollock fishery during previous trials. The testing of that excluder, using three vessels, spanned the 2015 A season, the 2015 B season and the 2016 A season.  Overall salmon escapement rates were lower than in the Gulf of Alaska, where salmon escapement was only 3 percent to 18 percent across the three vessels.

Previous flapper type excluders used in the Eastern Bering Sea Pollock fishery had achieved higher escapement rates than the new “over and under’ design.  The lower performance was attributed to a variety of factors including higher catch rates and fish flow through net differences between the Gulf of Alaska and Eastern Bering Sea Pollock fisheries.  Council staff noted that further refinement of the “over and under” design for use in the Bering Sea is likely to happen in subsequent experiments.

In other action in December, the council established electronic monitoring as part of the North Pacific Observer Program.  Under the alternative chosen, regulations would be implemented to allow electronic monitoring to be used for catch estimation.  Electronic monitoring would be integrated into the established observer program process, by which the council and National Marine Fisheries Service annually determine the best monitoring tool for the Alaska fixed gear fisheries, in the observer annual deployment plan.

It is through that process that the council and NMFS consider how to optimize observer and electronic monitoring deployment for fisheries in the partial coverage category annually, based on their analysis of costs, budget, fishing effort and monitoring needs.  In its final action, the council also included an option to allow vessels opting in to the electronic monitoring selection pool to use electronic monitoring for compliance monitoring when fishing individual fishing quota or halibut community development quota in multiple areas.

In related action, the council directed the electronic monitoring work group to continue tracking the electronic monitoring program for the next two years through full implementation.

The council said there would be opportunities to discuss costs in the partial coverage category of the observer program in conjunction with rebidding the human observer contract, which expires in 2019. In the coming year the observer program will be developing a timeline for a combined electronic monitoring and observer provider contract. Further discussion on the observer program is slated for the council’s June meeting in Juneau.

The council also heard stopped short of proceeding with a Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management plan after discussing a preliminary analysis of the plan, plus a summary of the public comment scoping process undertaken this past summer, and a preliminary draft social impact assessment.

The council voted to postpone further action on the issue indefinitely, but indicated its intent to consider other management options to address Gulf trawl vessel operators’ and processors’ concerns about their ability to minimize bycatch while conducting the fishery in a viable manner.