The Council approved the 2019 Gulf of Alaska (GOA) Groundfish Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report and recommended final harvest specifications for the 2020 and 2021 GOA groundfish fisheries. For final rulemaking for the 2020 and 2021 fishing years, the Council recommended OFLs and ABCs consistent with SSC recommendations, and final TACs. The Council also recommended halibut PSC limit apportionments and adopted updated halibut DMRs for 2020. In setting the TACs for 2020 and 2021, the Council accounts for guideline harvest levels (GHLs) for groundfish fisheries in state waters; full details are in included in the Council motion for the GOA.
The 2019 GOA Groundfish SAFE report includes stock status updates for all 21 stocks or stock complexes managed through the GOA Groundfish FMP. The GOA SAFE report forms the basis for GOA groundfish harvest specifications for the next two fishing years.
Based on consideration of stock prioritization including assessment methods and data availability, some stocks are assessed on an annual basis while others are assessed less frequently. Full assessments were produced for all stocks in the GOA in 2019 with the following exceptions: partial assessments were produced for shallow-water flatfish, northern and southern rock sole, rex sole, northern rockfish, dusky rockfish, demersal shelf rockfish, sculpins; an executive summary was produced for flathead sole; and no assessments were produced for sharks or thornyhead rockfish. For these exceptions, specifications were rolled over from the previous assessment for that stock.
The Council also reviewed the Ecosystem Status Report for the GOA, including a 4-page GOA ecosystem brief. The report highlighted unusually warm temperatures through 2019, similar to the 2014-2016 heat wave. Summer 2019 surface temperatures were warmer than the “blob” years. The report also provided information of phytoplankton and zooplankton densities as well as forage fish, seabird and marine mammal trends.
The GOA Pacific cod stock continues to be at a low biomass level. According to the 2019 update of the Pacific cod stock assessment, the spawning biomass is projected to reach an all-time low in 2020, just above the “overfished level” of B17.5%. As the stock is below the B20% threshold, Federal regulations at CFR 679.20 require the directed fishery for Pacific cod to be closed for 2020-2021 due to Steller sea lion conservation measures. The 2020 GOA Pacific cod Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is for incidental catch in other fisheries and accounts for the State GHL.
As the GOA Pacific cod stock is close to crucial management and biological thresholds (B20% and B17.5%), improved estimates of the probability of being above or below these thresholds in the future could better inform Council decisions. The SSC requested the authors compare results using different assumptions about natural mortality and recruitment, due to the considerable uncertainty about future recruitment and potential effects of the impending marine heat wave on cod mortality. For these reasons, the SSC set the 2021 ABC to be the same as the 2020 ABC until next year’s assessment provides more clarity about future trends.
The sum of the ABCs for all GOA groundfish stocks in 2020 is 465,956 mt, which is a reduction of 8.5% compared to the 2019 (509,507 mt) aggregate ABC. Maximum permissible ABCs were set for all stocks in the Gulf in 2019, except for pollock, sablefish, and demersal shelf rockfish. ABC less than the maximum permissible is recommended when there are additional conservation considerations that are not accounted for in the stock assessment, tier system, or harvest control rules. The GOA Groundfish Plan Team and the Council’s SSC will continue to explore use of the species-specific risk tables for appropriate reductions from maxABC in future harvest specification exercises (see also discussion in BSAI specifications newsletter).
For most stocks, the Council established TACs equal to ABCs. Exceptions where the TAC is set below ABC include pollock, Pacific cod, sablefish, shallow water flatfish in the Western GOA, flathead sole in Western and Central GOA, arrowtooth flounder (except in the Central GOA), and Atka mackerel.
The GOA Groundfish Plan Team report summarized the issues discussed and actions taken by the Plan Team at its November meeting in Seattle, WA. Highlights of the GOA Plan Team report included stock assessments incorporating this year’s survey data presentations from individual assessment authors. The SSC recommended 2020 and 2021 OFLs and ABCs and provided guidance regarding including new survey data and updating apportionments when conducting partial assessments. Some of the issues that pertain to GOA Groundfish, such as moving to Alaska-wide sablefish OFLs, were covered in the Joint Plan Team Report (discussed further under the BSAI Groundfish newsletter article).
The Council also recommended that the terms of reference for the Center of Independent Experts (CIE) review for the Gulf of Alaska Pacific Ocean Perch stock assessment (April 2020) should prioritize fixing the models’ performance and exploring the VAST model. The model should be revised before the September Plan Team meeting.
Sablefish Apportionment Workshop
As noticed in the Upcoming Meetings newsletter article, the AFSC is planning presentations and open discussions about the sablefish apportionment analysis at Juneau’s Auke Bay Lab in February. For more information contact Kari Fenske at (907)789-6653 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff contact for the GOA Groundfish Plan Team is Sara Cleaver.