DRAFT Minutes of the

Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Crab Plan Team

Meeting, September 27-28, 1999

Members Present:

Doug Pengilly (ADF&G, chair)

Gretchen Harrington (NMFS, vice chair)

Wayne Donaldson (ADF&G)

Rance Morrison (ADF&G)

Bob Otto (NMFS)

Jack Turnock (NMFS)

Tom Shirley (UAF)

Dave Witherell (NPFMC)

The Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) Crab Plan Team met on September 27-28 in Anchorage. The Team meeting was conducted based on the following agenda:

Introductions, Agenda, Meeting Minutes

Review Tanner Crab Rebuilding Plan and make recommendations (if any) to Council

Review survey information and GHLs

Review and discuss management of AI red king crab fishery

Prepare and review SAFE report

Review Category 2 and 3 proposals, and FMP amendment proposals received

Other issues for discussion.

Review of Tanner Crab Rebuilding Plan

The Team has been working on the rebuilding plan over the past year. At this meeting, the team reviewed additions to the analysis since the last draft, and provided some recommendations to the Council. The Team recommended that the Council endorse a rebuilding plan as provided under Alternative 2. The Team also recommended specific options under this alternative, and they are as follows:

Harvest strategy: The team supports Option 2 (endorse the new harvest strategy).

Bycatch Controls: The team supports Option 1 (status quo) and Option 3 (consider additional measures for crab fisheries). The team feels that the current level of crab bycatch in trawl fisheries is acceptable (< 1% of abundance). The team is concerned about unintended consequences (unobserved mortality, economic effects) of lowering the bairdi PSC limit. However, the team urges continued monitoring of trawl bycatch, and would have concerns necessitating a revisiting of the PSC limit if the bycatch levels increase. For crab fisheries, the team noted that research is being done reducing bycatch by modifying pot gear, and other management options (such as changing season dates) may reduce bycatch. The team encourages ADF&G, NMFS, and the Board of Fisheries to continue to research and consider the means to reduce bycatch in the crab fisheries.

Habitat: The team supports Option 2 (highlight importance of essential fish habitat, EFH, in consultations). The team wants to make it clear that it's lack of support for Option 3 does not reflect a lack of concern for the importance of habitat considerations in the rebuilding and maintenance of crab stocks. The team believes that habitat considerations are, in fact, very important and that additional analyses are needed to improve our understanding of bairdi EFH. However, the team is concerned about the lack of personnel resources, temporal and spatial resolution of existing data, other priorities, and limited time frame provided under this alternative. The team instead strongly urges that the EFH research review body should give high priority to proposals that research questions proposed under Option 3 by reviewing existing data from multiple sources and conducting new research directed at establishing EFH for bairdi and other overfished crab stocks.

Survey Information and GHLs

The team reviewed preliminary survey information and reviewed guideline harvest levels (GHLs) established for this years crab fisheries. A more detailed summary of survey information and establishment of GHLs is provided in the Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report. The section below provides additional observations not captured in the SAFE.

Tanner crab: The survey showed a slight increase in Tanner crab (Chionoecetes bairdi) spawning biomass and a showing of some pre-recruits (80-90 mm). Dr. Otto noted that a 2001 fishery was possible if these crab recruited in large numbers, but this situation was not probable. An unknown amount of recruitment may come from deeper areas than generally surveyed. Another factor to consider is that bairdi crabs north and west of the Pribilof Islands generally wont reach legal size in their lifetime. A mode of small bairdi crabs in the 30 mm size range also showed up in the survey, but it is too early to tell whether or not this can be classified as a good year-class. This mode is 3-4 years from recruitment. The spawning biomass (SB = 70.1 million pounds) remains below the minimum stock size threshold (MSST = 94.8 million pounds) and the stock is still considered overfished. The fishery will remain closed in the 1999/2000 season.

Snow crab: As projected in 1988, abundance of snow crab (C. opilio) declined sharply this year. The decline was even more than expected however, and the survey found relatively few opilio of all sizes. Severe declines resulted in a spawning biomass value (283.3 million pounds) that falls below the MSST (460.8 million pounds) and hence precipitated a severe curtailment of the fishery in the 2000 season. The GHL (28.5 million pounds) represents approximately 50% if the fishing mortality rate (F) of recent years. The plan team anticipates preparing a rebuilding plan in the coming year. Few signs of small (< 50 mm width) opilio were observed, so the near-term future for this fishery looks bleak.

King crabs: Survey data for Bristol Bay red king crab (Paralithodes camtshaticus) showed an increase in legal males this year, but a decrease in large females. Dr. Otto expects that the stock and GHLs should stay pretty much the same next year, but a decline is expected thereafter. The Pribilof Islands red king crab stock appears to be way up, but there is a lot of uncertainty about these estimates. Although this stock has harvestable numbers of male crabs, no fishery will be allowed this year because of the low and declining abundance of Pribilof Islands blue king crabs (P. platypus). Additionally, the closure of St Matthew due to an apparent stock collapse, would increase effort in a Pribilof Islands red king crab fishery to the point it would be unmanageable, so it remained closed. The St Matthew Island blue king crab stock declined sharply and the current estimate of spawning biomass (4.8 million pounds) is considerably below the MSST (11.0 million pounds), so a rebuilding plan will need to be prepared.

Aleutian Islands Red King Crab Management
The Aleutian Islands red king crab stock once supported large fisheries (e.g., 18.7 million pounds in 1972). The last significant harvest in this fishery occurred in 1993 (700,000 lbs) and the fishery was closed in 1996. CPUE and limited survey data indicated that this stock had crashed and no recruitment was forthcoming. Subsequent small scale tagging projects in 1996 and 1997 and a limited commercial fishery in 1999 indicated that this stock remains a at very low levels.

The Crab Plan Team discussed the current status of the Aleutian Islands red king crab stock and problems associated with determining population abundance estimates in the absence of any type of abundance index survey. Recent fisheries statistics and results of a small scale tagging project, by commercial vessels participating in the commercial golden king crab fishery, suggest the Aleutian red king crab population is at extremely low levels. The team generally agreed that recent fishery based assessments were not providing adequate data for fishery management and there is concern with serial depletion at very low stock levels.

Unfortunately, ADF&G does not have funding for additional survey work in the western Aleutian Islands area. In an attempt to gain much needed survey data on population abundance, the team suggested development of a survey plan which would allow industry participation in both survey design and implementation. It was suggested that test fish authority be secured which would allow for an index survey. The test fish vessel would be allowed to retain and sell legal red king crab captured to help pay for survey costs. Under this plan, the vessel conducting the survey would assume financial risk, since catches may not cover the cost of the survey. The vessel will need to agree to fish all survey stations, including those stations where few if any legal size red crabs would be encountered. The department will also have to commit staff time to prioritize the survey design and help conduct the survey.

The department will need to develop criteria to determine if the fishery would be reopened once the survey data is collected. To help interpret the survey results, past fishery cpue, size frequency and prerecruit levels will be used. For the coming winter the department will keep the commercial fishery closed. As time permits, Gordon Kruse's shop should work on a length based model and past harvest rates. Once the survey is completed, the results should provide direction for the next 4 - 5 years.

SAFE Report

The Team prepared the annual SAFE report, which was revised somewhat to address SSC's concerns. Notably, a summary section was added to the SAFE that includes information necessary to quickly evaluate stock status and whether or not the stock is below minimum stock size threshold (MSST), along with other assessment information. Additionally, details of the modeling methodology for assessments (where applicable) are included. The team views this years SAFE as a first step and further revisions are planned for the next report. The next SAFE report will include chapters on ADF&G trawl survey results for Norton Sound and Eastern Aleutian Islands, subsistence and personal use catch of crabs, social and economic data for the crab fisheries, and a chapter on bycatch in groundfish, crab, and other fisheries.

Review of Proposals

The team reviewed federal and state proposals for crab management. Team comments are provided for each proposal.

Federal proposal #3: This plan amendment proposal would begin analysis of an IFQ program for groundfish and crab fisheries. The team noted that the Board of Fisheries and ADF&G have management difficulties due to high fishing effort on crab stocks. As noted in previous team minutes, analysis should examine other options (such as individual pot quotas, co-ops, restrictive LLP) to address overcapacity, the race for fish, and associated problems.

Federal Proposal #5: This proposal would establish a PSC limit for the Bering Sea pollock pelagic trawl fishery. The team noted that this fishery generally catches very few crabs. The team would like more research on unobserved mortality of crabs due to pelagic and bottom trawl gear.

Federal proposal #7: This proposal would allow PSC trawl apportionments to be made inseason, thus giving some flexibility to adjust to unforseen market and fishery conditions. The team noted that flexibility could potentially result in crab bycatch limits reaching the caps. The team was particularly concerned that the bairdi caps not allowed to be adjusted between zones. It was noted that the flexibility may be more important for halibut than crab, and the team suggested that this first be tried with halibut only, if the proposal moves forward.

State proposal # 12: This is the old 299 proposal from the March 1999 Board of Fisheries meeting to change the bairdi season. It is a Category 2 proposal. The intent of this is to reduce bycatch and handling mortality by allowing for bairdi retention in the opilio fishery. ADF&G has several issues to be resolved, and one major concern is the potential for disproportional catches of bairdi by area based on opilio fishery distribution. The team noted that there likely won't be an opilio fishery for at least the next year (more likely several years), changing an important assumption under which this proposal was developed.

State ACR #2: This agenda change request from the Council is to revisit the 30 stand-down period (gear exclusion). ADF&G filed a similar ACR. The team noted that in the coming year, the Council and Board of Fisheries will be examining options to prevent prospecting.

State ACR #11: The agenda change request is administrative in nature, dealing with replacement of buoy tags in crab fisheries managed under pot limits. The team was unsure if this would be a category 2 measure, as it deals with pot limits, or would fall under some other category.

State ACR #?: The Council recently took action on sideboards as required under the American Fisheries Act (AFA). The intent of sideboards is to prevent disruption of non-pollock fisheries caused by AFA provisions. One sideboard adopted limits catch of AFA qualified vessels to a certain proportion of the Bristol Bay red king crab GHL. The BOF will need to deal with management of this particular fishery at its March meeting. Questions remain as to whether is a category 1 measure (limited access) or category 2 (GHLs).

State ACR #?: In order to complete rebuilding plans for both St. Matthew Island blue king crab and eastern Bering Sea snow crab, the Alaska Board of Fisheries will need to review at their March 2000 meeting proposals from ADF&G for new harvest strategies for each of the St. Matthew blue king crab stock and the eastern Bering Sea opilio. Although the harvest strategies have not been developed, many of the important components of harvest strategies are Category 2 measures; e.g., guideline harvest level determination, size limits, and season dates.

Other Issues

The team discussed development of rebuilding plans for snow crab and St. Matthew Island blue king crab. The plans will need to be ready for initial review by the Council at its April meeting for final action in June 2000. Additionally, the Board of Fisheries will need to adopt a new harvest strategy at its March meeting. So time is limited. The team felt that the bairdi rebuilding plan could serve as a template for the other crab rebuilding plans; that is, harvest strategy, bycatch controls, and habitat protection would all be examined as possible components of the plans. Dave Witherell will prepare a draft tasking plan by the end of October and distribute to all potential contributors and their supervisors. Significant efforts will be required of ADF&G, NMFS, and Council staff to get this all done in the limited time frame.

Dave Witherell gave a brief overview of the preliminary Habitat Areas of Particular Concern (HAPC) analysis. It is proposed Amendment 12 to the crab FMP. There is one management action being considered that would effect crab fisheries, and that is prohibiting all bottom fishing in areas of gorgonian coral abundance. The AI golden king crab (Lithodes aequispina) fishery occurs in the vicinity of coral areas, so there was some concern about potential impacts to the fishery. The team will provide recommendations to the Council prior to final action.

Others in attendance were: John Gauvin, John Zuck, Linda Kozak, Dick Powell, Francine Bennis, and Arni Thomson.