It’s time to talk crab season projections

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet in Anchorage from Oct. 5-11 to overview crab season projections, hear further discussions of halibut management, and decide what to do about a recent federal appeals court decision that will require more attention to salmon management.

The council will approve catch limits for the 2016-17 crab fisheries and review the stock assessment for the last year.

Stocks for both snow crab and Bairdi Tanner crab were down according to surveys in 2016, and stakeholders are holding their breath to see if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will need to close fisheries if abundance doesn’t meet the department thresholds.

The crab fishing management plan, or FMP, requires federal scientists to set an overfishing limit, or OFL, and an acceptable biological catch, or ABC.

Based on these numbers, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will determine a total allowable catch, or TAC, under its joint management with the council.

Commercial snow crab landings were 40.61 million pounds last season, a 40 percent decline from 67.9 million pounds the previous year.

The snow crab TAC in 2016 of 40.6 million pounds was based on an ABC of 137.4 million pounds. This corresponds to a sharp drop in the total amount of legally harvestable male crab. From a projection of 302 million pounds last year, the amount of legal-sized males has declined to 202 million pounds.

The TAC for the 2016-17 season will be much lower, as the acceptable biological catch is 47 million pounds.

Similarly, Tanner crab stocks appear to be in decline.

In 2015, the biomass prediction for tanner crab was 163 million pounds with a TAC of 19.67 million pounds. This year, surveys chart a drop down to a biomass of 100 million pounds.

Biomass for Bristol Bay red king crab has also dropped, though not as precipitously as that of snow crab and Tanner crab. Legal-size males declined from 61 million pounds in 2015 to 53 million pounds for the 2016 season.

 

Halibut

Responding to years of halibut allocation fights among direct harvesters and trawlers who take the fish as bycatch, the council will present a discussion paper on linking prohibited species catch limits to halibut abundance.

Currently the International Pacific Halibut Commission manages the directed halibut fishery, shifting catch limits with abundance. The North Pacific council manages halibut bycatch, which has been reduced but still uses a static number that does not fluctuate with abundance.

Notably, this led to a situation in 2015 during which halibut fishermen in the Central Bering Sea received a smaller amount of the total halibut quota than the groundfish trawl fleets, which take large amounts of halibut incidentally in pursuit of other groundfish.

Shifting halibut bycatch limits with abundance would distribute the pain of stock decline evenly between directed halibut users and bycatch users. Halibut fishermen say the stocks depend on more cooperation between the two bodies.

Such cooperation, though, would require a heavy workload for the council.

“Changing PSC limits or metrics (i.e., halibut mortality in weight or numbers of halibut) would require changes in the existing regulations for and administration of the groundfish fisheries by changing the catch accounting system, in-season management, and other issues that would need to be explored in future discussion papers and analyses,” states the paper.

The discussion paper outlines different models the council might use to determine abundance. Key to the discussion is the difference in survey methodology and science used by the North Pacific council and the IPHC.

The paper has recommendations on how to bridge these differences as well as how to change rules to allow the council and commission to operate in tandem.

 

Salmon court decision impact

The council will also hold a discussion on a recent federal court decision that could potentially heavily impact its workload over the next few meetings leading up to the 2017 salmon season.

Industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association filed a lawsuit in 2013 to repeal the council’s 2011 decision, which was officially Amendment 12 to the Alaska salmon FMP. The council removed three historical net salmon fisheries from the FMP, delegating salmon management entirely to the state of Alaska and removing that management from the rigors of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the central piece of federal fisheries law.

The initial suit was rejected by U.S. Alaska District Court Judge Timothy Burgess in September 2014. The 9th Circuit remanded the case back to Burgess with instructions to find for the plaintiffs.

Federal fisheries policymakers and state managers will now have to work together on a suitable FMP, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had hoped to rid itself of in 2011 by passing Amendment 12 in the first place.

Installing an FMP before the next salmon season will be critical. Representatives from UCIDA are asking the council to create a committee to help in the process.

“The purpose of committee would be to consider the scope of alternatives, and as appropriate, to initiate and expedite the development of a salmon FMP for Cook Inlet,” wrote Dave Martin, UCIDA’s president. “We recommend that the salmon committee includes two individuals representing the Cook Inlet salmon drift and setnet fisheries, a member representing the seafood processing and marketing sector and additional salmon committee members as the Council deems appropriate.”

• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com

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