Meanwhile, fish on!
When is an “emergency” not an emergency? When it does not fit neatly into federal definitions.
When is a stock ‘overfished’ but not subject to overfishing?
The emergency request to protect Bristol Bay red king crab (BBRKC) with a temporary closure in two fishing zones was denied by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at its meeting on Dec. 9. The fishery has been closed for two years due to low crab numbers – a trend that has been observed and documented for two decades .
The trade group Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers (ABSC) requested the emergency action in September to close two red king crab “savings” areas to all fishing gears from January 1 to June 30, 2023. The goal was to protect spawning and molting crab and their habitat from fishing impacts at a time of historically low stock abundance during a critical period in their life cycle.
ABSC pointed out that “it is an unqualified directive in the Magnuson-Stevens Act that the Council is obligated to prevent overfishing and rebuild crab stocks to achieve optimum yield over the long-term,” wrote director Jaime Goen in a comment. “Yet what we have observed for BBRKC is a 20-year reduction in stock size and harvests. The stock is at a level of serious conservation concern, nearing overfished status, and clearly and immediately in need of further conservation and management.”
It is that decades’ long foot-dragging that was the request’s undoing because “An emergency action may not be based on administrative inaction to solve a long-recognized problem.”
Yet the emergency criteria also states that: “The only legal prerequisite for the use of the Secretary’s emergency authority is that an emergency must exist.”
But in another cave to the oft cited federal caveat that “trawl vessels must continue operating year-round even with high bycatch rates because cost accrual on such large platforms would be unsustainable,” the Council determined “the situation did not result from recent, unforeseen events or recently discovered circumstances,” in dismissing the crab protections.
It added: “While Bristol Bay red king crab abundance is low, the stock is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring, and the stock is regularly assessed so this the (sic) decline in abundance is not unforeseen or recently discovered.”
And in another nod to the “most favored status,” that the trawl sector enjoys, the NPFMC added: “Available information does not support a finding that the immediate benefits of emergency rulemaking outweigh the value of advance notice, public comment, and deliberative consideration of the impacts on participants under the normal rulemaking process.
The NPFMC continued: “Although the analysis indicates the proposed action could provide habitat benefits through reduced bottom contact by trawl gear and potentially reduced Bristol Bay red king crab mortality, these impacts are identified as uncertain and highly dependent on assumptions that the closure will move trawl and fixed gear fleets into areas with lower crab impacts. The analysis also indicates potentially negative impacts to other prohibited species like salmon, halibut and herring and fleet operations.”
Instead of opting for temporary protections, the Council adopted another “purpose and need statement and alternatives for analysis.”
It states that “Estimated recruitment has been extremely low during the last 12 years and the projected mature biomass is expected to decline during the next few years.”
The Council said it “intends to consider management measures focused on reducing BBRKC mortality from groundfish fishing in areas that may be important to BBRKC and where BBRKC may be found year-round, which may help increase stock abundance and promote achievement of optimum yield from the directed BBRKC fishery while minimizing negative impacts to affected groundfish fleet operations as well as target and PSC species”.
The options and alternatives (listed below) state that the analysis “should provide an expanded discussion of the performance standard applicable to vessels in the directed pollock fishery and the regulatory definition of pelagic trawl gear;” and “should include background on the rationale for and information used to establish the performance standard and gear definition to help evaluate whether (they) are meeting Council objectives.”
That follows a NPFMC finding in April that pelagic (mid-water) trawl gear is in fact on the bottom 85% of the time.
The analysis also “should evaluate the potential tradeoffs and challenges of establishing dynamic closure areas to promote the Bristol Bay red king crab stocks.”
No due date for completion of the analysis was included in the Council document.
While the BBRKC fishery has been cancelled for two years, the “pre-approved” trawl red king crab bycatch allowance for 2022/23 is 26,445 animals, down from 80,160 last year.
The dismissal of red king crab protections due to legal definitions follows the NPFMC ruling in October that Bering Sea snow crab is officially overfished. That means that there is not enough mature male crabs to reach what’s considered the minimum stock size to be a sustainable fishery.
However, the snow crab stock is “not subject to overfishing,” because the fishery removals aren’t above the level considered to be sustainable — rather, it’s because the stock dropped for other reasons that scientists and managers aren’t entirely sure of yet.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) must decide this month on a 10 year rebuilding plan for Bering Sea snow crab to comply with federal fisheries laws.
And just as Gov. Mike Dunleavy bases his yearly state budget on pipe dreams for sustained high oil prices, the NPFMC scientists have their fingers crossed that environmental conditions will improve to give snow crab a boost in the 10 year time frame.
Regardless, it’s no concern for the Seattle-based bottom trawlers fishing for flatfish on the snow crab grounds.
According to the initial environmental assessment of the Rebuilding Plan for Eastern Bering Sea Snow Crab released on November 10, “No measures to modify Eastern Bering Sea snow crab bycatch management in the groundfish fisheries are included in this rebuilding analysis.”
Meanwhile, the snow crab fishery was closed this season for the first time. The NPFMC “pre-approved” trawl bycatch allowance for 2022/23 is 3,623,201 animals, down from 5.99 million snow crab last year.
Here is the NPFMC red king crab Purpose and Need Statement and Alternatives for Analysis
December 9, 2022
The Council adopts the following purpose and need statement and alternatives for analysis.
The Bristol Bay red king crab (BBRKC) stock has declined and is currently at low levels, resulting in a closure to the directed fishery in 2021/22 and 2022/23. Estimated recruitment has been extremely low during the last 12 years and the projected mature biomass is expected to decline during the next few years. The best available science indicates the cause of the decline is a combination of factors related to continued warming and variability in ocean conditions.
Given the poor recruitment and low stock status of BBRKC, the Council intends to consider management measures focused on reducing BBRKC mortality from groundfish fishing in areas that may be important to BBRKC and where BBRKC may be found year-round, which may help increase stock abundance and promote achievement of optimum yield from the directed BBRKC fishery while minimizing negative impacts to affected groundfish fleet operations as well as target and PSC species.
Alternative 1. Status quo
Alternative 2. Implement an annual closure of the Red King Crab Savings Area and Red King Crab Savings Subarea to all commercial groundfish fishing gears. The existing closure for non-pelagic trawl gear is not changed.
The closure would be in effect:
Option 1: if ADF&G does not establish a Total Allowable Catch the previous year for Bristol Bay red king crab fishery.
Option 2: if the total area-swept biomass for BBRKC is less than 50,000 t.
These suboptions apply to either option:
Suboption 1: exempt hook-and-line gear from the closure
Suboption 2: exempt pot gear from the closure
Alternative 3. Implement a closure of Area 512 to fishing for Pacific cod with pot gear.
The closure would be in effect: Option 1: if ADF&G does not establish a Total Allowable Catch the previous year for Bristol Bay red king crab fishery.
Option 2: if the total area-swept biomass for BBRKC is less than 50,000 t.
The analysis should provide an expanded discussion of the performance standard applicable to vessels in the directed pollock fishery and the regulatory definition of pelagic trawl gear. The expanded discussion should include background on the rationale for and information used to establish the performance standard and gear definition to help evaluate whether the performance standard and gear definition are meeting Council objectives.
The analysis should evaluate the potential trade offs and challenges of establishing dynamic closure areas to promote the Bristol Bay red king crab stocks.