The Council reviewed the Ecosystem Status Reports for the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea, approved the BSAI Groundfish Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) Report, and made final recommendations on groundfish harvest specifications, prohibited species catch (PSC) limits, and halibut Discard Mortality Rates (DMRs) to manage the 2021 and 2022 BSAI groundfish fisheries. Harvest and PSC specifications for 2021 and 2022 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, the North Pacific Index was positive from fall 2019 to 2020 which caused persistent warm winds from the Southwest and suppressed storminess through fall and winter 2019/2020. The sea surface temperatures in the AI cooled in 2020 relative to the 2014-17 warm period, but the overall temperature was still warmer than average. In the BS, the 2019-2020 daily mean ice extent was within 1 standard deviation of the long-term mean, but sea ice appears to have been thinner. The cold pool was average, based on the ROMS hindcast model.
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, including assessment methods and data availability. The global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 precluded most NMFS surveys in the BS and AI. Therefore, survey data were not available for most assessments, although new catch and fishery dependent data were available. The Teams expressed concern that additional years of missing surveys will affect the uncertainty around model estimates. Full assessments were performed in 2020 for nearly all stocks, partial assessments were produced for two stocks (Alaska plaice, northern rockfish). For stocks with partial assessments, specifications are rolled over from the previous assessment. The statewide sablefish assessment and a report for Grenadier, as part of the Ecosystem Component, were provided during the Joint Plan Team report. The Groundfish Plan Teams and the Council’s SSC will continue to explore use of the species-specific risk tables for appropriate reductions from maxABC in future harvest specifications. To improve this process, the SSC will consider issues raised by the Plan Teams in application of the risk tables at a workshop during the February 2021 SSC meeting, as scheduling allows.
In specifications, the Council considered different apportionment methods for sablefish in the BSAI. The Council agreed with the Plan Team, SSC, and AP that the status quo fixed apportionment is no longer appropriate. The Council agreed with the SSC recommendation to implement a 25% step toward adopting the Plan Team and assessment author recommendation of the non-exponentially weighted 5-year average survey apportionment method. For 2021, this results in a sablefish statewide ABC of 29,588 t, with allocations of 3,396 t to the BS and 4,717 t to the AI. This is an 80% increase in the BSAI and 2.3x increase in the AI over 2020.
Final BSAI specifications for 2021 and 2022 are shown on Table 1 in the Council motion.
In 2019, the Council took final action to amend the FMPs for the BSAI (Amendment 121) and GOA (Amendment 110) to move the sculpin stock complex to the Ecosystem Component category. The amendments were approved by the Secretary of Commerce in 2020, and therefore annual specifications are no longer required for this complex.
Overall, the status of stocks in the BSAI continue to appear favorable. No stocks are experiencing overfishing or are overfished. All stocks are above BMSY or the BMSY proxy of B35%. The abundances of EBS pollock, EBS Pacific cod, all rockfishes managed under Tier 3, and all flatfishes managed under Tiers 1 or 3 are projected to be above BMSY or the BMSY proxy of B35% in 2021.
In setting TACs for 2021 and 2022, the Council takes into account the Guideline Harvest Levels (GHLs) for fisheries occurring in State waters on the same species. In 2018, the Alaska Board of Fisheries modified how GHLs in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands are set for Pacific cod. In 2021, the GHL in the AI will be set at 6,804 t, which is the maximum GHL that can be set for the AI. The Bering Sea GHL will be set at 12,426 t (10% of the EBS pacific cod ABC plus an additional 45 t). The GHL for the Aleutian Islands in 2022 in the AI will be 39% of the AI ABC or the maximum of 6,804 t, and in the BS the GHL will be 11% of the EBS ABC plus an additional 45 t. 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.
Staff contact for the BSAI Groundfish Plan Team and specifications is Steve MacLean.