Seawatch: NPFMC changes sablefish pot regs

Beginning as early as next season, fishermen targeting sablefish with pots in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands will be able to retain legal-sized halibut, provided the operator holds sufficient halibut Individual Fish Quota or Community Development Quota permits for the corresponding regulatory area.

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council took final action on the proposal at their recent meeting.

The purpose of the action is to allow for more efficient harvest of the halibut resource by decreasing wastage of legal-size halibut discarded in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands (BSAI) sablefish pot fishery and to allow for the possibility of reduced whale depredation of halibut off hook-and-line gear.

Whale predation by both orca and sperm whales has caused substantial losses in both the halibut and sablefish longline fisheries in the BSAI area, and also in the Gulf of Alaska, and anecdotal evidence from long-time fishermen indicates it is increasing as older generations of whales pass the technique on to juveniles.

It is difficult to know just how many fish the whales are taking. Federal surveys put the sablefish losses at under 10 percent of the annual harvest; however, one study published in the journal PLOS One titled “Killer Whale Depredation and Associated Costs to Alaskan Sablefish, Pacific Halibut and Greenland Turbot Longliners” found losses of as much as 65 percent.

In spite of those figures, there was opposition to allowing pots to be used for sablefish, mostly from longliners who were concerned about gear conflicts. The Council action includes the following elements: an exemption to the 9-inch maximum width of the tunnel opening on pots; vessel monitoring system and logbook requirements for all vessels using pot gear to fish IFQ/CDQ; and, in the event that the overfishing limit for a shellfish or groundfish species is approached, regulations would allow the National Marine Fisheries Service to close IFQ fishing for halibut as necessary. Additionally, the Pribilof Islands Habitat Conservation Zone would be closed to all fishing with pot gear.

To the extent practicable, the Council has recommended that halibut fishermen in the BSAI interested in using pot gear under this action consult with crab fishery participants on appropriate crab escape mechanisms to minimize crab bycatch. The action still must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce, and no halibut may be retained out of pot gear until that time. The Council plans to review the effects of allowing retention of halibut in pot gear three years after implementation.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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