NPFMC thumbs nose at Alaskans – with State backing

NPFMC brushed king crab protections off the table, took agenda items out of order, punted on keeping 'pelagic' gear off the bottom. And it's A-OK with AK!

by | February 19, 2024

Dumps king crab protections; sidesteps own rules by taking up agenda items out of order

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) again took a pass on protecting red king crab at Bristol Bay by simply brushing the issue off the table.

At its meeting last week in Seattle, the Council also punted on action to stop pelagic (mid-water) trawl gear from fishing on the bottom, opting for more “discussion on definitions.”

It also took up the topic out of order as outlined on the agenda.

No action on crab protections from trawl gear

The NPFMC has been talking about protecting the red king crab stock at Bristol Bay for well over two decades.

Last year the Council announced “it is considering a second review draft of an Environmental Assessment and Regulatory Impact Review for action alternatives aimed at reducing Bristol Bay red king crab mortalities.” The NPFMC added the result could be closures in so called Red King Crab Savings Areas to “certain groundfish gears” on an annual basis to protect molting and mating crabs.

Fast forward to February 2024

At this time, the Council takes no further action on the analysis of alternatives for Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands groundfish fishery area closures due to negative impacts on Chinook salmon, chum salmon, halibut, and other (prohibited) species.”

Instead, the Council made a motion saying it “intends to use in-season information and results from several ongoing research projects to develop framework agreements for dynamic closures and crab avoidance measures for the BSAI trawl, pot, and hook-and-line sectors to respond to changes in crab abundance and distribution with measurable objectives to evaluate performance.”

That’s exactly what the Seattle-based trawlers wanted!

In December 2022, trawl lobbyists co-stated to the NPFMC: “The best available scientific information clearly indicates the requested action [closing the crab savings areas] would not address other climatic conditions affecting red king crab and would not address other management challenges that are known to impact red king crab,” wrote Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-sea Processors Association and Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative.

Typically, Madsen/Mann only stressed impacts to the trawl sector – which takes nearly 75% of the value of ALL Alaska groundfish out of the state. 

“First, closure of this area would cause substantial direct harm for the pollock fishery and individuals and communities reliant on the pollock resource.”
Stephanie Madsen, director of At-sea Processors Association
Heather Mann, director of Mid-water Trawlers Cooperative
December 2022

Secondly, Madsen/Mann said that shifting fishing effort “would limit the flexibility of the fleets to avoid non target species, including salmon. It would result in moving fishing effort to areas where Chinook salmon bycatch rates are known to be 35 times higher for the fleet.  Also, it could lead to increased gear conflicts and reduced harvests. The NPFMC is the appropriate forum for analysis and deliberations in such tradeoffs.”

NPFMC sidesteps the rules; State of AK votes no on tighter pelagic trawl regs

Following its “no action” on red king crab protections, the NPFMC then made an unrelated motion to task its staff with another discussion paper “to inform options for incentivizing pelagic trawl gear innovation.”   

Among them were objectives to “minimizing bycatch to the extent practicable” and to  “minimizing the impacts of pelagic trawl gear on sensitive benthic habitat and unobserved mortality of stocks that rely on such habitat.”

That “continue to kick the can down the road” motion ended with: “The Council will review options for changes to the performance standard following this work.”

That stall did not sit well with NPFMC member Jon Kurland, head of NOAA/Alaska, who offered an amendment to remove that final sentence.

Kurland asked that the requested discussion paper instead include “potential ways to clarify the definition and or performance standard for pelagic trawl gear to enable effective management of the amount of seafloor contact in areas where bottom contact is a management concern.”

Kurland’s amendment failed on a 7-4 vote with the State of Alaska voting no.

Wait a minute…pelagic trawl issues were not a part of the red king crab agenda

The NPFMC was not scheduled to address pelagic trawl issues until the following day. But the Council went ahead and passed a motion anyway, as described above.

That drew the ire of with Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and a former NPFMC member from 1992 – 2001.

“I’ve been involved for a long time and the Council did something quite new to me. It took action on an issue before it received staff reports and public testimony.”

linda behnken, Alfa director; former npfmc member

Behnken added: “ALFA is concerned by the process, and even more that you voted against limiting seafloor contact as the objective for pelagic trawl operating in areas closed to bottom trawl. If nets are on the bottom, they are bottom trawling. We ask that you reconsider your decision yesterday, hear testimony and you follow Mr. Kurland’s lead in establishing a meaningful objective for pelagic that actually will limit contact with the seabed.” [LW: The State of Alaska representative on the NPFMC, Deputy ADF&G Commissioner Rachel Baker, VOTED NO.]

” I cannot believe industry cannot innovate its way into documenting contact with the sea floor since 1993,” Behnken exhorted. “Your discussion paper already in hand adds nothing. It does not leverage changes. You are allowing bottom trawling in areas that are closed.”

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

definition of pelagic by noaa fisheries

It’s a simple definition, but the North Pacific Council can’t seem to make sense of it.

That’s despite a study by its own NPFMC staff in April 2022 which revealed for the first time that catcher vessels using pelagic trawl gear can average 85% fishing on the bottom.

And In its June 2023 report to the Council NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement (OLE) admitted that current pelagic trawls are being fished on the bottom and there is little they can do about it — because the gear doesn’t fit the regulatory definition in the federal rule books.

“One can argue about details regarding what particular component of the trawl gear (cod-end or otherwise) is making contact with the bottom, but the important factor is that critical environmental damage is being done to the ocean floor by this so-called “mid-water” trawling. It is time to stop arguing about definitions and put an end to the destruction that is being inflicted on fishery habitat with pelagic trawling,” commented William Gehrlein.

Jon Warrenchuk, Senior Scientist and Campaign Manager for Ocean, also called out the Council for making a formal motion on pelagic trawl out of order without having enough information to make a decision.

“We can go around and around about what percent of time pelagic nets are actually on the bottom. Observers have documented clam shells, snails, brittle stars, sea wicks and sea stars in observed pollock catches. That indicates the nets are on the sea floor,” Warrenchuk stressed.

“Why are we at this point where supposedly the largest fishery in the world, called the best and most sustainably managed and other descriptors that its marketing applies to – in the past two three years, it is a green washing effort. No, this is not mid-water pelagic trawl gear that doesn’t touch the bottom. It is engineered to become a gear that cannot be limited by the old thresholds (from 1993) of whether or not it is determined to be on the bottom.”

jon warrenchuk, oceana

Warrenchuk told the NPFMC “the path you’re going down” is so far away from keeping trawl gear off the bottom that he is “flabbergasted.”

He added: “If the council has never intended and doesn’t intend now to protect habitat from trawl gear, they should make that clear. As was mentioned in the third Advisory Panel motion. call it what it is: mobile bottom contact gear.

In the end, here is the description on the NPFMC’s “action” on redefining pelagic gear as stated in its February newsletter:

“The Council initiated an analysis of changes to the definition of pelagic trawl gear to align regulations with current practices in Alaska, and to remove outdated regulatory text that does not reflect innovations in gear performance over previous decades. Potential changes related to the inclusion of the “codend” in the pelagic trawl gear definition are intended to align current regulations with the Council’s intent in defining pelagic trawl gear in 1993, and could result in improved regulatory compliance and achievement of Council objectives.”

After the NPFMC meeting concluded last week, one industry insider who has been involved in the Council process for decades was “incensed” saying: “The Council is selling an illusion that it is attempting to get so called mid-water trawl gear off the bottom while it thumbs its nose at Alaskans.”

“From our perspective, it seems like what’s occurred over the last few years is you have a pollock fishery and everything has to work around their catch–-everything.”

TIM BRISTOL, SALMONSTATE DIRECTOR

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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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