The Council and AP reviewed a discussion paper on the potential creation of a discard allowance for the fixed gear individual fishing quota (IFQ) sablefish fishery, and took action to initiate an analysis. The Council’s motion for the analysis cites the low commercial value and high survival rate of small sablefish, and suggests that allowing IFQ fishing operations to return these fish to the water could contribute to stock biomass and the future value of the commercial harvest.
The alternatives proposed for analysis include voluntary release of sablefish and a range of discard mortality rates (DMRs) for pot and hook and line gear. Voluntary discarding was preferred over setting a size limit because it accommodates differences in sablefish size between the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska, and also provides needed flexibility when catches of small sablefish and the conditions that favor keeping these fish can be unpredictable. Additionally, the motion includes two options for catch accounting including observer-based or survey-based discard estimation. Discard mortality was recommended to be estimated in the sablefish stock assessment with a request for analysis of voluntary discarding on the process for stock assessment and catch limit specifications. Finally, an evaluation of monitoring and enforcement provisions that could improve discard estimation are requested.
Under current regulations, all sablefish caught in the IFQ fishery must be retained. The discussion paper looked at a range of issues including voluntary discarding, area-based size limits, management accounting for discards, proxy discard mortality rates, discard reporting methods, and the potential impacts of discarding to sablefish stock abundance. Stakeholders in the IFQ fishery have asked the Council to take action to change to those regulations so that fishing operations have the ability to return small sablefish to the water so they can grow to marketable size. Unusually large numbers of small sablefish from the 2014 and 2016 year classes have been getting caught and must be kept.
Among the many challenges associated with IFQ sablefish discarding are the potential addition of extensive observer monitoring workloads and costs, which would be necessary to accurately estimate the quantity of discards that could occur as well as the size and condition of the discards. The accounting system for the IFQ fishery would also need to be overhauled since an allowance for IFQ discards would reduce allocations to both trawl and IFQ vessels or IFQ vessels only. Additionally, because IFQ is assigned to an individual, and discards may be attributed based on observer program estimates, individual liability may need to be addressed. Finally, avoiding harvest of small fish from the recent large year classes will have to be done carefully to avoid fishing down less abundant portions of the stock. Across all of these issues, the Council seeks to find balance between ensuring conservation and data quality on one hand and providing needed flexibility for fishing operations on the other.