The Council made final recommendations on groundfish harvest specifications, prohibited species catch (PSC) limits, and halibut Discard Mortality Rates (DMRs) to manage the 2022 and 2023 BSAI groundfish fisheries following review of the Ecosystem Status Reports for the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, and the BSAI Groundfish Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) Report. Harvest and PSC specifications for 2022 and 2023 fishing years are available in the Council motions.
The Council reviewed Ecosystem Status Reports including 4-page summary briefs for the Aleutian Islands (AI) and the Bering Sea (BS). Ecosystem conditions are summarized in report card summaries at the beginning of each ESR. In the AI, 2021 sea surface temperatures in August and September were the highest on record since 2003 in the western and central Aleutians. In the eastern, they were mostly cooler relative to last year and closer to the long-term average. Overall, sea surface temperatures are expected to decrease to average levels through winter 2021 and early spring 2022. Ecosystem-wide, several trends and conditions have persisted since 2013 including continued negative North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO), warmer than average sea surface temperatures (SST) across the Aleutians, with mid-depth waters also warming since 2013, low eddy kinetic energy in the eastern AI and below average abundance of large diatoms and biomass of meso-zooplankton. Cumulatively, these conditions suggest a lower productivity level across the system with increased bioenergetic needs for fish and faster growth rates for zooplankton. Overall, sea surface temperature is expected to decrease to average levels through winter 2021 and early spring 2022.
The Eastern Bering Sea (both northern (NEBS) and southern (SEBS)) remains in an anomalously warm phase that began in 2014. Ongoing and lagged ecosystem-wide impacts of climate shocks were observed in 2021, especially in the NEBS (i.e., following record high temperatures, and record low sea ice and cold pool extent in 2018 and 2019). In the NEBS, concerns about ecosystem carrying capacity persist, highlighted by the gray whale Unusual Mortality Event and short-tailed shearwater mass mortality event following poor feeding conditions experienced during 2018 and 2019. Multiple synchronous declines in observed in 2021 in the NEBS represent ecosystem “red flags” including crab population declines, salmon run failures in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, seabird die-offs combined with low colony attendance and poor reproductive success and declines in the CPUE of all fish and major invertebrate taxa sampled during the 2021 NOAA bottom trawl survey in both the NEBS and SEBS survey areas, with notable declines in the NESB between 2019 and 2021 (and absent of concurrent increases in the SEBS in 2021).
The BSAI SAFE report forms the basis for BSAI groundfish harvest specifications for the next two fishing years. Some groundfish stocks in the BSAI are assessed annually while others are assessed less frequently due to stock prioritization based on assessment methods and data availability. Full assessments were performed in 2021 for EBS and AI pollock, EBS and AI cod, sablefish, yellowfin sole, flathead sole, Alaska plaice, northern rockfish and Atka mackerel. A report on the status of forage fish in the BSAI was provided. For stocks with partial assessments, specifications are rolled over from the previous assessment. The statewide sablefish assessment was provided during the Joint Plan Team report. Final BSAI specifications for 2022 and 2023 are shown in Table 1 in the Council motion.
Overall, the status of stocks in the BSAI continue to appear favorable. No stocks are experiencing overfishing or are overfished. Most stocks are above BMSY or the BMSY proxy of B35%. However there was a decline in the abundance of EBS pollock and it is estimated below the BMSY in 2022.
In setting TACs for 2022 and 2023, the Council accounts for Guideline Harvest Levels (GHLs) for groundfish fisheries in State waters. The Alaska Board of Fisheries took action in 2018 which modified how GHLs in the Bering Sea (BS) and Aleutian Islands (AI) are set for Pacific cod. The GHL in the AI will be set at 39% of the AI ABC, or a maximum of 15 million pounds (6,804 t). The BS GHL will be set at 11% of the EBS Pacific cod. An additional reduction of 45 t is taken from the remaining EBS Pacific cod maxTAC for the Area O jig fishery. The Council’s OFLs, ABC, and TACs take the GHLs into account.
The Council specified an ABC reserve for flathead sole, rock sole, and yellowfin sole, which was specified as the ABC surplus for the species (i.e., the difference between the ABC and TAC); specified Prohibited Species Catch (PSC) limits for halibut, crab, and herring; and specified halibut discard mortality rates (DMRs) for the BSAI. Crab PSC limits have all declined from 2021 levels due to the decline in the estimated abundances of red king crab, snow crab and Tanner crab. Additionally, Federal regulations state that the Red King Crab Savings Subarea be closed to nonpelagic trawl gear if the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) does not set a TAC for red king crab in the Bristol Bay area in the previous year. A TAC has not been set for the 2021/2022 Bristol Bay red king crab season, thus the area will be closed to nonpelagic trawl gear in 2022.
The Council also moved to initiate a discussion paper to consider whether and how the Spatial Management Policy can be used to address conservation and management concerns for BSAI blackspotted/rougheye rockfish. This represents the second time the Council has initiated step 2 of the policy to address concerns for this stock.
Staff contact is Diana Stram.