Credit: Deck Boss blog

Bycatch Becoming Massive Issue in BSAI and GOA: First Halibut, Now Sablefish, Soon Crab

By Peggy Parker,

November 6, 2020

Ten harvester groups from Alaska urged NOAA Fisheries Administrator Chris Oliver to consider “area closures, payback provisions, and even hard cap inseason closure authority” to reduce the overharvest of sablefish bycatch in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

For the second year in a row, the Bering Sea trawl fishery caught more sablefish as bycatch than their allocation allowed — by 484% this year, after a 356% overage last year. Together, that amounts to over 11 million pounds in the last two years alone.

The Council has struggled with halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea for five years and, although progress was made last month, a lasting solution is many months away. Sablefish was moved off the agenda of the October meeting due to time constraints, but that didn’t stop a dozen or more comments from stakeholders during the Groundfish Specification section of the meeting. Of eight letters and six oral testimonies, sablefish took up the majority with crab being the focus of two more.

The October 30th letter to Oliver, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, was in response to no action to date while the bycatch continues. The letter reminded the agency of the fundamental obligation of management to heed Annual Catch Limits, an obligation enshrined in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

“The National Standard 1 Guidelines explain that accountability measures (AMs) should prevent exceedances of ACLs, and “correct or mitigate overages of the ACL if they occur,” the letter reads, adding MSA’s requirement that this be done “as soon as possible” each year.

While North Pacific Council members indicated they might make a motion to address trawl overages at the December 2020 meeting, nothing has been done so far.

With bycatch of sablefish continuing to increase in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska as pollock and flatfish trawling continue, the letter urges NOAA to  “identify accountability measures to control trawl sablefish catch to the assigned TACs. We believe NOAA should act immediately to stop trawl sablefish bycatch and to identify appropriate accountability measures for 2021 and beyond,” the harvesters wrote.

The Gulf of Alaska trawl fleet has also far exceeded their allowable catch of sablefish by significant margins for several years.

Fisherman Buck Laukitis told the Homer News that he sees trawlers working right on top of the sablefish fleet on the sablefish grounds in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. He started writing letters to colleagues to bring attention to the problem, but lamented that it took fishermen on the grounds calling it out, rather than fishery managers taking the initiative, the paper reported yesterday.

“It’s really unfortunate that you have to go to a reporter and you have to write letters, because this is a rationalized fishery. We could tell what every single one of those boats is doing through their co-op, we know who’s catching the (sablefish) and where they’re fishing,” he told the News, since they have 100% observer coverage. “The promise of rationalization was that they would take care of their own problems. This is just a breakdown. Either they don’t care, because they’re the biggest fishermen in the country and they have immunity, the rules are for somebody else, or … I don’t even know how this is possible.”

Laukitis also added that sablefish and halibut rear in the Bering Sea and migrate out as far south as British Columbia and beyond, so the downstream effects of juvenile fish mortality impacts fleets that target sablefish now and in future years. As of this week, with about 10 days left in the season, only 22% of the directed fishery quota had been landed in the Aleutian Islands district, and only 66% statewide.

“We’re struggling,” Laukitis said. “It should never have come to this. This is supposedly the best managed fishery in the world.”

The industry letter to Oliver puts the loss in stark numbers. The 11 million pounds of by caught sablefish in the last two years was mostly juvenile fish, which, if they been allowed to grow to market size, would have been least 25 million pounds of marketable fish.

The letter was signed by the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, North Pacific Fisheries Association, Fishing Vessel Owners Association, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, Clipper Seafoods, Kodiak Vessel Owners Association, Under Sixty Cod Harvesters, Sablefish and Halibut Pot Association, Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Brian O’Leary, F/V  Afognak Strait.

Comments from sablefish fishermen during the groundfish portion of the October Council meeting also supported immediate action.

“It appears that our worst fears have been realized,” Paul Clampitt wrote. “Because the NPFMC has determined that the entire Gulf of Alaska sablefish biomass is one stock and is using that to determine the trawl industry’s sablefish overfishing level the trawl industry is now 376% over their allowable retention of sablefish in the Bering Sea. The trawl industry is doing severe damage to the sablefish fishery and now doing the same harm to the directed sablefish fishery as they are doing to the halibut fishery,” Clampitt said. He is Vice President of the Sablefish and Halibut Pot Association.

Tory Curran, a fisheries biologist, sablefish fisherman and member of the Council’s Advisory Panel, took issue with the Council’s action last year to change the sablefish overfishing definition to coast wide, removing protection to geographical areas that may be key spawning or nursery areas for the coast wide stock.

“Sablefish are of crucial importance to the directed sablefish fishery and the directed users have expressed deep concerns about increasing ABC in light of significant unknowns in ocean and fish conditions, the very low levels of spawning stock biomass and the poor CPUE in directed fisheries,” Curran wrote.

“Last year the SSC chose to ignore stock assessment author recommendations and significantly increased the ABC. I urge the SSC and Council to refrain from approving any increase in sablefish ABC in 2021 until a full understanding of stock condition, implications of large bycatch of young sablefish in the Bering Sea and implications of apportionment can be discussed with all users groups. Having the Council raise ABC or change apportionment methods before they have been fully vetted in a public process is not the solution. Trawlers must be held to the same standards as the rest of us,” Curran wrote the Council.

The sablefish by catch issue will likely be addressed by the Council at its next meeting, scheduled for Nov. 30 to December 11, 2020.

Next up will be BSAI and GOA crab bycatch at the Council’s February 2021 meeting. Foreshadowing that issue for the Council at its October meeting, Jamie Goen of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) warned the crab bycatch may be impacting stocks.

“ABSC continues to be concerned that the crab PSC limits may be too high and are not tracking with the health of the crab stocks,” ABSC Executive Director Goen wrote.

“For example, the Bristol Bay red king crab (BBRKC) stock is at historic lows with poor recruitment for over a decade, and approaching thresholds that will close the directed fishery. And yet, the BBRKC [prohibited species catch] PSC limit for the groundfish fishery is not at the lowest possible level. Similarly, the directed bairdi fishery was closed this past year and yet the PSC limit was set at the highest possible level,” Goen wrote.