NPFMC Leans on Stakeholder-Led Approaches to Minimize Bycatch and Crab Mortality

"Rather than regulation, the NPFMC is officially encouraging crabbers and trawlers to figure it out on their own," writes Terry Haines.

by | February 22, 2024

Filed Under Bycatch | Management | NPFMC | Research | Trawl

Council slides the question of an enforceable performance standard to the back burner; delays and dithers on “pelagic” definition –

By Terry Haines/Kodiak Daily Mirror
February 21, 2024

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has decided to not go forward with analysis of proposed annual static groundfish fishery closures in areas of the Eastern Bering Sea where Bering Sea Red King Crab feed and mate. The closures were proposed as a way to help stocks recover by minimizing observed and unobserved crab mortality. Two reasons were given for not going forward: uncertainty about whether the closures would benefit the king crab and fears that fishing effort would be pushed into areas where high bycatch of salmon, halibut and other crab species could occur.

Instead, the Council will depend on stakeholder-led approaches to minimize bycatch and crab mortality. This is expected to be achieved through information sharing across fishery sectors, development of a set of best practices, and perhaps most significantly, gear innovation.

“Rather than regulation, the Council is officially encouraging crabbers and trawlers to figure it out on their own, by developing agreements for dynamic area-management … All told, it is a big, sticky octopus of a job to dump into the lap of the industry.”

terry haines

The information to manage these dynamic agreements is expected to be produced in real time by fishermen on the grounds through voluntary information sharing. Assumedly trawlers would be contributing the bulk of usable data. How much real time information can be offered by a crab sector that is closed or severely curtailed is an open question. Recent stock assessment surveys conducted by crab boats in winter should help inform the process, but the lack of historical data leaves a big vacuum.

The Council would like to see these industry led area-management agreements reassessed regularly to check to see if they are adapting to new data and a shifting ecosystem. They also expect the agreements to include a way to measure their success in achieving Council goals. All told, it is a big, sticky octopus of a job to dump into the lap of the industry.

But even as the Council chose not to continue to analyze area closures to minimize interactions between trawl gear and sensitive crab habitat, they directed staff to continue to look into ways trawl gear innovations could be incentivized to help achieve Council objectives. Those objectives include minimizing bycatch, minimizing gear impacts on sensitive benthic habitat and unobserved mortality of species that live there, like king crab. They would do this by redefining the term “pelagic.”

Pelagic fish inhabit the water column (not near the bottom or the shore) of coasts, open oceans, and lakes.

One of the changes would involve the codend, or the big sock at the end of the trawl where the fish are funneled. Proposed changes would essentially remove reference to the codend from the definition altogether. That means the operator could use flotation there, which is limited in the rest of the net. That might help keep the codend from contacting the bottom. They could allow extra flotation for bycatch control contraptions.

They will also consider removing archaic language banning “parallel lines”, and allow for metallic connectors, which is also an outdated regulation. Conspicuously absent from the analysis is the potential to allow rollers and bobbins on pelagic trawls that would potentially allow the footrope to pass over crab when the pelagic trawl does contact the bottom. Analysis would be expected to consider effects on fishing efficiency. And the potential changes would apply to trawl fisheries statewide, including the Gulf of Alaska.

The question is where is the incentive? Why would a trawler embark on expensive alterations of the gear when there is no enforceable “performance standard” by which bottom contact can be discouraged through actions like fines? The Council has slid the question of an enforceable performance standard to the back burner for now, while it concentrates on the definition of “pelagic.”

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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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