By the end of August, the allowable trawl sablefish bycatch was triple what it should have been: 2,229 mt, or nearly 1,600 mt over its allocation of 633 mt.
Reaction from the directed fishery was swift and urgent. Four letters to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council will be responded to at its meetings in Homer next week.
One, from Sitka resident Caroyn Nichols, stated the problem and her reaction to a potential solution from the Groundfish Plan Team clearly.
“It is my understanding that [the bycatch level] is 3.8 million pounds OVER the Bering Sea trawl sablefish allocation and that this amazing overage threatens to close all fisheries that take sablefish for the rest of the year. The Bering Sea Plan Teams idea to combine the Bering Sea OFL with the Aleution Island OFL is not a good idea as it just allows the Bering Sea fleet to keep overfishing.
“The Council must hold each fishery accountable for its by-catch and not just sweep it under someone else’s rug.”
The joint meeting of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska Groundfish Plan Team’s minutes from last week in Seattle note that “given current information, there is a good chance that the BS sablefish OFL in 2019 will be exceeded. The Teams discussed this and noted that this is an unusual case where the OFL should have been aggregated over areas to be consistent with the assessment. The Teams noted that exceeding the OFL for the BS alone was not a conservation concern and if possible, combining the OFL for the BS and AI would be acceptable.”
Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fisheries Association, noted “the amount of trawl inflicted mortality is unacceptable. We ask the Council to take appropriate action to control trawl sablefish bycatch.
“This overage currently threatens the sablefish Overfishing Level (OFL)—in fact, current catch (fixed gear and trawl) is only 443 mt below the OFL for the Bering Sea. While the fisheries and associated bycatch are starting to slow down, the mortality inflicted on this recovering stock and the risk of future OFL overages are untenable.”
The Seattle-based Fishing Vessel Owner’s Association and Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union were also concerned about the ramifications of the overage.
They took issue with not just the bycatch overage, but with the retained amounts. Their letter noted “1,281 mt had been discarded, 979 mt had been retained and 450 mt had been sold for human consumption. We understand that half of this bycatch is from the pollock fishery and half from the AM80 fleet.
“Our first concern is that, by allowing the bycatch to reach these levels, any assumption that we were saving fish to help rebuild this resource cannot be sustained.
“Our second concern, considering that the trawl quota is 633 mt in the Bering sea, how is it explained that 979 mt was retained?
“Our third concern is that, by allowing the total mortality of sablefish to reach close to the overfished level, all directed and non-directed fishing could face regulatory closures.
“The sablefish resource has recently been blessed with several above-average year classes… These young fish put on about 1 pound per year for females, less for males. It takes a year class 6-to-9 years to reach optimal market size befoere the pot and longline directed fishery can take advantage of these new-year classes. Having nearly 5 million pounds of bycatch of juvenile sablefish is not acceptable, ever, and particularly if this is becoming an annual event.”