The Council approved the 2020 Gulf of Alaska (GOA) Groundfish Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report and recommended final harvest specifications for the 2021 and 2022 GOA groundfish fisheries. For final rulemaking for the 2021 and 2022 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 discard mortality rates (DMRs) for 2021. In setting the TACs for 2021 and 2022, 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 2020 GOA Groundfish SAFE report includes stock status updates for all 20 stocks or stock complexes managed through the GOA Groundfish FMP. No harvest specifications were set for sculpin for the upcoming years since that stock complex has been moved to the ecosystem component category. 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 2020 with the following exceptions: partial assessments were produced for rougheye/blackspotted rockfish, arrowtooth flounder, shallow-water flatfish, northern and southern rock sole, demersal shelf rockfish (DSR), and flathead sole, and no assessments were produced for rex sole, deepwater flatfish, shortraker rockfish, other rockfish, Atka mackerel, skates, or octopus. For these exceptions, specifications were rolled over from the previous assessment for that stock. Reports were provided for forage fish and grenadiers.
The Council also reviewed the Ecosystem Status Report for the GOA, including a 4-page GOA ecosystem brief. The report highlighted close to average conditions for 2020. Sea surface temperatures returned to the long-term mean after 2014-2016 and 2019 heatwave years, with a warm summer and fall. While the previous marine heatwaves continue to impact some species, food availability in 2020 was average or improved over past years. The report also provided information of phytoplankton and zooplankton densities as well as forage fish, seabird and marine mammal trends. Additionally, the report highlighted impacts of the loss of some surveys due to Covid-19 and mitigation of data loss.
The GOA Pacific cod stock remains at low levels but is increasing and is estimated to be above the overfished determination level. Spawning biomass is projected to increase from 2021 to 2022 due to a stronger 2018 recruitment and reduction in fishing mortality since 2018. The 2021 Federal GOA Pacific cod Total Allowable Catch (TAC) is 17,321 mt, which reserves an additional 6,306 mt for the State GHL.
During the specifications process, the Council considered different apportionment methods for sablefish. The Council agreed with the Plan Team, SSC, and AP that the status quo fixed apportionment was no longer appropriate. The Council agreed with the SSC recommendation to implement a 25% stair step from the current (fixed) apportionment percentages toward the non-exponential 5-year survey average proposed by the authors. For 2021, this would equate to increases in the apportioned ABCs in all areas (up to 60% in the Aleutian Islands), but much smaller increases in those areas that have recently been apportioned a greater percentage than suggested by survey observations (only 17% in the East Yakutat area). The GOA wide TAC for 2021 is a 25% increase from the 2020 TAC.
The sum of the ABCs for all GOA groundfish stocks in 2021 is 476,037 mt, which is a 2.2% increase compared to the 2020 (465,956 mt) aggregate ABC. Maximum permissible ABCs were set for all stocks in the GOA in 2020, except for sablefish, dusky rockfish, and DSR. 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. Further discussion of the risk table is included in the draft SSC report and the BSAI Groundfish newsletter article.
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, other rockfish in the Eastern 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 virtual November meeting. Highlights of the GOA Plan Team report included stock assessment presentations from individual assessment authors and authors of the Ecosystem and Socioeconomic Profiles (ESPs) for GOA pollock and Pacific cod. The SSC recommended 2021 and 2022 OFLs and ABCs and provided guidance on many of the assessments in its draft SSC report. Some of the issues that pertain to GOA Groundfish, such as sablefish apportionment, are covered in the Joint Plan Team Report (discussed under BSAI Groundfish).
Staff contact is Sara Cleaver.