The Council took final action on the draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the abundance-based management (ABM) of the Amendment 80 (A80) halibut prohibited species catch (PSC) limit. The Council has been considering this action iteratively for 6 years. The core concept of the action is linking PSC limits in the A80 commercial groundfish trawl fleet in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands (BSAI) to estimated halibut abundance. The current PSC limit is set as a fixed amount at 1,745 mt, which becomes an increasingly larger proportion of total halibut removals in the BSAI when halibut abundance declines. The Council and its advisory bodies, fishery stakeholders, and the public have considered several approaches for an ABM program consistent with Council fishery management objectives and the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The Council heard extensive public testimony during this and previous meetings over both the importance of providing flexibility to the A80 fleet to prosecute their quotas as well as concerns from the directed halibut users that their directed fishery catch has declined as a result of a decline in halibut abundance while fixed PSC limits have further reduced the proportion of halibut available for harvest in the directed halibut fisheries.
The Council recognizes that its authority under the Magnuson Stevens Act is limited to setting PSC limits to the directly regulated entity (A80) and establishing directed fishery catch limits is under the authority of the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). Therefore while this action may result in changes to PSC usage by the A80 fleet, there is no guarantee that this will translate to increased opportunities for halibut in the directed fishery. In its purpose and need statement for this action the Council acknowledges this directly by stating:
The Council is considering a program that links the Amendment 80 sector PSC limit to halibut abundance and provides incentives for the fleet to minimize halibut mortality at all times. This action could also promote conservation of the halibut stock and may provide additional opportunities for the directed halibut fishery.
The SSC has reviewed multiple iterations of this analysis and provided extensive review comments over multiple years on a range of survey indices before recommending the two most applicable for informing halibut abundance in the Bering Sea; the IPHC Setline survey and the NMFS Eastern Bering Sea trawl survey. In April 2021, the SSC noted that the current analysis represents the best available science for informing the decision by the Council at this meeting.
The preferred alternative (PA) selected determines the A80 PSC limit annually based on the most recent survey values and the associated PSC limit value from the following table:
At current halibut abundance index levels, a 1,309 mt PSC limit would be established for the A80 sector as specified in the Low/Low states of the setline and EBS trawl survey indices. This is a 25% reduction from the 1,745 mt limit currently in place and establishes the PSC limit 37 mt under the sector’s average halibut PSC use from 2016 through 2019. The Council recognizes that the PA will impact all A80 companies differently and significant changes will need to be made to fishing plans and operations to adjust to the reduction in halibut PSC limits and that impacts on operating costs and on groundfish harvests and revenue will differ across companies. Although the Council received a large amount of written comment and testimony supporting even larger reductions in halibut PSC limits than the lowest (35%) included in the PA, the DEIS along with written comment and testimony from A80 sector participants indicated that the largest PSC limit reductions under consideration (in Alternative 4) at current levels of halibut abundance would result in significant increases in halibut avoidance costs and operating inefficiencies and would not be practicable to achieve in most years.
The Council recognizes the complex and challenging nature of this action. However it has been a priority to establish abundance-based management of halibut PSC for the A80 groundfish fisheries and to promote continued participation of other fishery participants and communities dependent on the halibut stock in the BSAI. Under this ABM program, the A80 halibut PSC limit will move both up and down according to the indices of abundance and be responsive to changing halibut stock conditions that affect all halibut users, while never exceeding the current PSC limit. The A80 sector has expressed concern about a lack of positive correlation between the survey indices and their halibut encounter rates and the potential impacts that may have on their ability to avoid halibut and reduce halibut mortality. While these are valid concerns, the primary objective of this action is to link halibut PSC limits to the abundance of halibut, recognizing that halibut is fully allocated. In addition to supporting prosecution of groundfish fisheries, it is a highly valued fish species that supports directed subsistence, recreational and commercial halibut fisheries coastwide.
The PA strikes an appropriate balance between the Magnuson-Stevens Act requirements to establish conservation and management measures that minimize bycatch to the extent practicable under MSA National Standard 9 while achieving optimum yield on a continuing basis under MSA National Standard 1. The PA balances the interests of the two largest halibut user groups in the BSAI, the directed commercial halibut fishery and the A80 sector, by establishing abundance-based halibut PSC limits for the A80 sector. The Council clearly would rather not impose additional costs that could result in reduced groundfish harvests and revenues, but noted that halibut is fully utilized in the BSAI and at low and very low index states, mortality from PSC should decline in response to reduced amounts of halibut available for harvest for all users and this is likely to prevent halibut PSC from becoming a larger proportion of total removals in the BSAI, consistent with the Council’s purpose and need statement.
Implementation of this action will occur in either 2023 (mid-year) or for the beginning of the 2024 fishing year.
Staff contact is Diana Stram.