NPFMC wrestles with halibut bycatch in Bering Sea

Fisheries managers hope to approve an abundance-based prohibited species catch plan for Amendment 80 fleet

Federal fisheries managers aiming to limit incidental halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea are moving forward with alternative options to resolve allowable bycatch based on abundance of the species.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council noted in a revised purpose and need statement approved during its October meeting that the Amendment 80 sector, in the Bering Sea, a fleet of trawl catcher-processors targeting rock sole, yellowfin sole and flathead sole, is accountable for the bulk of the annual halibut prohibited species catch in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fisheries. The meeting was virtual, due to safety concerns prompted by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Amendment 80 fleet has reduced halibut mortality in recent years, the continuing decline in the halibut stock requires consideration of additional measures for bycatch management, the council said.

When halibut abundance in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands declines, prohibited species catch by these trawl catcher-processors can result in a larger proportion of total halibut removals, particularly in International Pacific Halibut Commission Area 4CDE, which includes the Pribilof Islands. To that end, the council intends to establish an abundance-based halibut prohibited species catch management program in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands for the Amendment 80 sector that meets requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management Act, particularly to minimize halibut prohibited species catch to the extent practicable under National Standard 9 and to achieve optimum yield in the area groundfish fisheries on a continuing basis under National Standard 1.

National Standard 9 calls for conservation and management measures that, to the extent practicable, minimize bycatch and the mortality of such bycatch. National Standard 1 calls for conservation and management measures to prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis the optimum yield from each fishery.

The program under consideration by the council links the Amendment 80 sector prohibited species catch limit to halibut abundance and would provide incentives for the fleet to minimize halibut mortality at all times. Such action, the council said in its new purpose and need statement, could also promote conservation of the halibut stock and may provide additional opportunities for the directed halibut fishery.

During its lengthy session on the abundance-based management issue the council selected three alternatives for staff analysis in setting prohibited species catch limits.

Under any of the proposed alternative actions the prohibited species catch limit would be determined annually based on survey values from the most recent year available.

Council staff was directed to review information from the October meeting and present an analysis that will provide information necessary for the council to understand the expected impacts of each alternative on the affected sectors.

An initial review of the analysis is set or the council’s virtual meeting in April, with final action at the meeting of October 2021.