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NOAA Fisheries Seeks Comment on Plan for Abundance-Based Management of Halibut in the Bering Sea

December 09, 2022

Amendment 123 balances interests of two largest halibut user groups in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands Fishery Management Area.

Illustration of a Pacific halibut.

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comment on a proposed rule that would implement Amendment 123 to the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) management area. If approved, the proposed rule would establish abundance-based management of Amendment 80 trawl sector prohibited species catch limit for Pacific halibut.

The Amendment 80 sector is a fleet of nearly 20 trawl catcher-processor vessels that target Pacific cod, Pacific Ocean perch, Atka mackerel, and Rock, Yellowfin, and Flathead sole in the Bering Sea.

This action was initiated by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its December 2021 meeting. It is necessary to minimize halibut prohibited species catch to the extent practicable without compromising the ability to attain optimum yield in the BSAI groundfish fisheries.

Pacific halibut is fully utilized in Alaska as a target species in subsistence, personal use, recreational, and commercial halibut fisheries. Halibut has significant social, cultural, and economic importance to fishery participants and communities throughout its geographical range.

Halibut is also incidentally taken as bycatch in groundfish fisheries. The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Fishery Management Plan currently apportions the halibut prohibited species catch limit between the Amendment 80 sector and the BSAI trawl limited access sector. It sets the annual halibut mortality PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector at 1,745 metric tons.

In recent years, catch limits for the commercial halibut fishery in the BSAI have declined in response to changing halibut stock conditions. Limits on the maximum amount of halibut PSC allowed in the groundfish fisheries have remained constant.

As halibut abundance declines, the PSC limit becomes a larger proportion of total halibut removals. The Amendment 80 sector is accountable for the majority of the annual halibut PSC mortality in the BSAI groundfish fisheries.

Amendment 123 is consistent with the Council’s purpose and need statement for this amendment. It will prevent halibut PSC from becoming a larger proportion of total removals in the BSAI as halibut abundance declines. The Amendment 80 halibut PSC limit should decline in proportion to reduced amounts of halibut available for harvest by all users.

Amendment 123 would replace the current Amendment 80 sector static halibut PSC level of 1,745 metric tons. It would establish a process for annually setting the halibut PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector based on the most recent halibut abundance estimates.

Why the Amendment 80 Sector?

The Amendment 80 groundfish fisheries provide revenue to Amendment 80 vessel owners and crew members that harvest and process groundfish. In addition, the fisheries provide socioeconomic benefits to fishing communities that support Amendment 80 vessel operations.

The Amendment 80 sector is accountable for the majority of the annual halibut PSC mortality in the BSAI groundfish fisheries. From 2010 through 2020, the Amendment 80 sector accounted for roughly 60 percent of the overall BSAI groundfish trawl PSC mortality. The

Amendment 80 sector halibut PSC limit of 1,745 metric tons is apportioned between Amendment 80 cooperatives and the Amendment 80 limited access fishery.

The Amendment 80 fleet has reduced halibut mortality in recent years. However, continued decline in the halibut stock requires consideration of additional measures for management of halibut PSC in the Amendment 80 fisheries. Since the BSAI halibut abundance has declined in recent years, the static PSC in Amendment 80 fisheries can become a larger proportion of total halibut removals in the BSAI. This is particularly important in Area 4CDE and can reduce the proportion of halibut available for harvest in directed halibut fisheries.

The proposed action balances the interests of the two largest halibut user groups in the BSAI: the directed commercial halibut fishery and the Amendment 80 sector. It also considers other users, including subsistence and recreational, by establishing abundance-based halibut PSC limits for the Amendment 80 sector.

If approved, the amendment would provide incentives for the Amendment 80 fleet to minimize halibut mortality at all times. This could result in additional harvest opportunities in the directed commercial halibut fisheries. This would help provide for the sustained participation of such communities that participate in those directed fisheries and allowing for a fair and equitable allocation of the resource.

The Abundance-Based Approach

Image
Pacific halibut on ocean floor
Pacific halibut. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Amendment 123 would establish a link between the halibut PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector in the BSAI groundfish fisheries and halibut abundance. The abundance-based approach is consistent with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) management approach for the directed commercial halibut fisheries off Alaska. This approach establishes annual catch limits that vary with halibut abundance.

If approved, Amendment 123 would allow NOAA Fisheries to annually set halibut PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector according to:

  • Halibut abundance indices from the most recent annual IPHC setline survey in Area 4ABCDE
  • Most recent results of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Eastern Bering Sea shelf trawl survey index for halibut

Those limits would range from the current Amendment 80 halibut PSC limit when abundance is high in the IPHC setline survey to 35 percent below the current limit when abundance is very low in the IPHC setline survey.

The Council and NOAA Fisheries reviewed the scientific information and consideration of the revised National Standard guidelines. They determined that reducing halibut PSC with declining halibut abundance provides conservation benefits, as defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. They determined that this proposed amendment, if approved, may provide additional harvest opportunities for the commercial halibut fisheries.

This regulation is expected to be implemented prior to the 2024 BSAI groundfish fishing season. An effective date of November 2023 is required to ensure that the 2024 harvest specifications will include the new halibut PSC limit for the Amendment 80 fleet.

How to Comment

The public comment period on Amendment 123 is open for 60 days, and the public comment period on the proposed rule is open for 45 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. Comments on the FMP Amendment must be received no later than February 7, 2023. The 60 day comment period was restarted because the proposed amended FMP text was not made available to the public with the publication of the NOA. Comments on the proposed rule must be received no later than January 23, 2023.

Read the notice of availability and proposed rule to implement Amendment 123.

Via U.S. Mail

Address comments to: Josh Keaton, Acting Assistant Regional Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region, NOAA Fisheries, Attn: Susan Meyer,

Identify your comments by Docket Number NOAA-NMFS-2022-0088.

Address: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668

Submit Comments Online

Submit comments at regulations.gov.

A Final Environmental Impact Statement was prepared for this action. A notice of availability for this FEIS was published in the Federal Register on December 9, 2022, the same day as publication of the proposed rule in the Federal Register.

 

Last updated by Alaska Regional Office on December 12, 2022

Amendment 80 Program Alaska Bycatch