Mid-water (pelagic) trawl performance standard based on # of crabs. HUH?

NPFMC/NOAA plan years of discussion on pelagic trawl "definitions." Terry Haines explains that "20 crab must be visible!"

by | January 31, 2024

Gear definition has been unchanged since 1993; NPFMC will discuss at Feb. meeting

When the 2021 red king crab fishery was cancelled for the first time in 25 years, the  North Pacific Fishery Management Council tasked its staff to prepare a discussion paper.

Among the topics was to “Provide the best available information on bottom contact by pelagic (mid-water) trawl gear and the impact it may have on Bristol Bay red king crab stocks (BBRKC).”

Fishery researchers determined that pelagic trawl catcher vessels are averaging 40% of the time on the ocean bottom. For catcher processors, the “mid-water” gear averaged 85% on the bottom.

It was the first time the amount of bottom contact by mid-water (pelagic) trawl gear was put in writing. READ IT HERE The paper also revealed that the federal government applies its rules differently to on-bottom (non-pelagic) and pelagic (mid-water) gears.   

Pelagic trawl gear definition set for Feb. NPFMC meeting  – Send comments by Feb. 2

The North Pacific Council meets online and in person, Feb. 8-12 in Seattle. AGENDA

Pelagic trawl definition changes are on the agenda. HERE is the discussion paper – that will lead to more years of discussion.

Here are the “Recommendations to allow for trawl gear innovation” on page 23:

  1. NMFS recommends the Council clarify its objectives in pursuing regulatory changes that support
    trawl gear innovation.
    Clearly articulating the goals and objectives for potential trawl gear innovations would allow better
    identification of specific regulatory provisions that may be limiting gear innovation that could achieve the
    Council’s goals. Once specific provisions are identified, an in-depth analysis of the potential impacts of the proposed changes could be completed. The Council and NMFS would need to consider the downstream impacts to the management objectives of the various regulatory provisions that use the current definition of pelagic trawl gear and have been built upon the previous actions. This could be a subsequent action from rulemaking to address NMFS’s above recommendations that directly address the
    problems identified in the current regulations.
    Analysts have identified the following broad objectives that could be drivers for gear innovation:
    ● Improving fishing efficiency (e.g. directed fishing selectivity, towing and fuel efficiency);
    ● minimizing bycatch (e.g. halibut and salmon excluders; species selectivity);
    ● limiting fishing impacts in specific areas (e.g. habitat protection areas, and gear closure
    areas).

What is the Pelagic Trawl Performance Standard? Terry Haines explains …

From the Kodiak Daily Mirror
January 31, 2023

At its June 2023 meeting, The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council asked the Enforcement Committee of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement to reexamine the pelagic trawl “performance standard.” The Council requested NMFS and the Enforcement Committee, in consultation with industry, identify ways to revise the pelagic gear performance standard to be enforceable.

But what is the “performance standard?” And why do fishers of pollock, crab, and halibut care whether it is enforceable?

The answer goes back to the closure of directed Pacific cod and pollock bottom trawl fishing in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Management Area in June, 1990 due to high levels of halibut bycatch. An Emergency Rule implemented in August of that year. At the time “pelagic” or midwater gear, which is used to catch pollock and rockfish was understood to be different from “bottom” trawls, which are used to catch things like cod and flatfish, but there was no legal definition that defined them separately.

The Emergency Order prohibited pelagic gear from having bottom protecting measures like bobbins, rollers, and discs, and also prohibited contact with the bottom.

But a final rule implemented in 1991, after consultation with industry, modified the latter provision to remove all language prohibiting bottom contact because it is “unenforceable.” Like a tree falling in the forest, if a trawl hits the bottom and no one sees it … Instead of prohibiting bottom contact language was adopted that tried to limit bottom contact by requiring specific gear specifications like forward mesh size.

But they did not entirely give up on an enforceable standard by which bottom contact could be discouraged through penalties like fines. In July 1993, language was adopted that further refined what does (or does not) constitute pelagic trawl gear, and provided a “performance standard” intended to limit bottom contact for pelagic trawl gear, without prohibiting bottom contact. Strangely enough, the standard has to do with the number of crabs aboard a vessel. A vessel in a directed pollock fishery using trawl gear is absolutely prohibited from having onboard the vessel, at any one particular time, 20 or more crab (of any species) that have a carapace width of more than an inch and a half.

But wait. Wasn’t the big hullabaloo about halibut bycatch? Where do the crabs come in? Well, back in 1991, when halibut bycatch numbers were ballooning, they were operating under a Vessel Incentive Program (or Disincentive Program) by which a halibut bycatch rate greater that one tenth of one percent was a violation, with potential repercussions. So they were keeping close track of all bycatch at the time, and they noticed that when vessels hit the 20 crab threshold their bycatch of halibut doubled. From this they deduced that when you hit twenty crabs on deck, your net was probably on the bottom.

In June 2000, the Council approved Amendment 57. It included this provision: “In order to prevent fishermen from using pelagic gear to trawl on the bottom, a performance standard would also be employed, under which it would be unlawful for an owner or operator to have 20 or more crabs on board a vessel at one time.” This essentially closed pollock in the BSAI to non-pelagic trawl, and established the trawl performance standard in the BSAI for all pelagic trawl pollock directed fishing.

The problem is the performance standard is just as unenforceable as the ban on bottom contact. It requires both count and measurement of the crab, and it has to be official. That means the tallying has to be done by either enforcement personnel or an observer. The first problem they stumble on is that legally crab must be immediately discarded as Prohibited Species catch. There is potential for Electronic Monitoring to provide actionable data in the American Fisheries Act catcher processor fleet. And in a maximum retention model that monitors discards observers in processing facilities could provide such data. But right now it is up to the at sea observers.

They are not in a good position to do the job. The way the law is written the OLE can only take action when the physical crab are in hand with the corresponding measurements. That means extrapolated data from random sampling is not usable for enforcement action. Unfortunately random sampling is pretty much all observers do. Also, they tend to sample exclusively from the codend, where the fish are funneled. But past data has shown that crabs are often caught in other parts of the net. And even though the Observer Sampling Manual specifically asks them to take additional samples if they observe over twenty crab, there are serious challenges to doing so.

For one thing, they are already taking samples of every other animal on deck. Plus, it is often not practical, and downright dangerous, to hop around deck counting and measuring crab while haul back operations are underway. Collecting crab around the footrope or intermediate mesh is not for the faint hearted, and in addition to the risk, observers are aware of interfering with and intruding upon deck operations. Plus, the performance standard requires 20 crab be visible “at any particular time.” Partial crab are tough to estimate. And since vessels are required to discard crab immediately with a minimum of injury regardless of condition, this complicates the requirement of 20 crab “at any particular time.”

If they are constantly going overboard, it makes it tough to count twenty at any particular time. And finally there is nowhere in their paperwork for observers to enter such data at all. An observer would have to submit a special statement to make such data available to regulators. In the years since 1999 OLE has received 38 such statements recording 66 potential violations. None resulted in any type of monetary penalty. Enforcement “action” consisted of 4 Compliance Assistance outreach efforts, and 3 Written Warnings, assumedly strongly worded.

Terry Haines of Kodiak is a longtime fisherman and produces the weekly Alaska Fisheries Report at KMXT. Haines also is a Kodiak City Council member and president of SWAMC.

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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