Pollock, cod fishing begins with uncertain future in Steller rules

PHOTO/Rob Stapleton/AJOC
Winter fishing for pollock and cod is under way in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, thanks to a budget rider pushed through Congress in December by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

The National Marine Fisheries Service published emergency regulations Jan. 20 implementing a new fisheries management plan allowing vessels to start fishing.

"Overall it’s OK, compared with what we thought we would have to live with," under a Biological Opinion published by NMFS on Nov. 30, said Stephanie Madsen, vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

"But it’s still not as good as what we had last year," before a September court injunction closed prime fishing areas, Madsen said.

Some good news is that the pollock biomass in the Bering Sea has grown, so the pollock fleet there has a quota of 1.4 million metric tons compared with about 1.14 million tons in 2000. But it will be more difficult to fish that quota because of the restricted fishing areas, Madsen said.

The Gulf of Alaska is a different matter. The pollock biomass there is down, and quotas are down 10 percent. There are more fishing restrictions, too.

"In the gulf, it’s almost as constraining as under the injunction," said Heather McCarty of the At-Sea Processors Association. "Seventy five to 80 percent of the prime fishing grounds may be off limits, instead of 95 percent," McCarty said.

Meanwhile, huge uncertainties still hang over the groundfish fleet, a billion-dollar industry that is an economic mainstay of coastal communities like Kodiak, Akutan, Atka and Unalaska.

For starters, the reprieve is only for six months. Stevens’ amendment allows a gradual phase-in of a restrictive fisheries management plan based on NMFS Biological Opinion on endangered Steller sea lions.

But the plan, which would severely curtail the big groundfish industry, would still come into effect after June, according to Madsen.

NMFS must publish revised regulations June 10 to cover fishing during the remainder of the year, according to the Jan. 20 notice.

Federal fisheries scientists could find new information before June, causing them to change their opinion that fishing contributes to a rapid decline of Steller sea lion populations. Unless that happens, the June 10 regulations will incorporate recommendations of the Nov. 30 Biological Opinion.

The fishery could also be curtailed sooner. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly, the Seattle judge in a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace over the Steller sea lions, will convene a Feb. 2 hearing to consider whether NMFS’ emergency regulations provide enough protection for the Stellers, which are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Greenpeace, the plaintiff in the suit, has taken the position that the emergency regulations still leave the sea lions in a state of jeopardy. They are encouraging the judge to reimpose an injunction against fishing inside critical Steller habitat areas issued in September and lifted in November, when the latest NMFS Biological Opinion was published.

"Even this phase-in may be problematic. If the plaintiffs can persuade the judge that the management plan under the Biological Opinion is the only way sea lions are protected, we may find ourselves out of compliance with the Endangered Species Act," said McCarty of the At-Sea Processors Association.

The agency may be in a bind on the legal issue because no matter what Stevens did in Congress, the Nov. 30 Biological Opinion says Stellers are jeopardized by fishing. Zilly could order NMFS to stand by its Nov. 30 opinion, despite Stevens.

For the big pollock fishery in the Gulf and Bering Sea, the fishing plan NMFS has implemented is essentially the management plan that was in effect during most of last year, before the September court injunction went into effect. The 2000 plan defined Steller sea lion habitat areas, closed some to fishing and allowed limited fishing in others.

In September Zilly’s injunction closed all areas within 20 miles of sea lion habitat to fishing. This blanketed most of the Gulf of Alaska and portions of the Bering Sea coast.

The new plan reopens some of these areas to fishing but sets out some new restrictions. For example, while the total pollock quota for the Bering Sea fishery is larger this year, fish taken from a prime fishing area north of Unalaska that is important to boats operating from that community, is capped at last year’s tonnage.

But fishing is at least being allowed in that area. Under the Nov. 30 Biological Opinion it would have been closed, as it was when the September court injunction was in place. Fishing boats operating from Unalaska would have had to travel farther to where fishing was allowed, at a time of year when most of the fish are in restricted areas.

There are other rough edges. Madsen points out that "50 percent of the critical habitat areas are supposed to be open, but only 40 percent is really open based on the boundary lines we’ve seen."

"We hope to get the council to look at this in February, so that we can get up to 50 percent," she said. Some changes are positive, though. One is that 60 percent of the Pacific cod quota can now be fished in the first half of 2001, and 40 percent in the last half, Madsen said.

Previously it was reversed, with only 40 percent available in the first half of the year. Cod fishing is usually better in the first half, so the higher quota is important, she said. But even the temporary plan allowed this spring will cost the industry about 45,000 metric tons of fish that could have been taken inside closed or restricted areas, compared with spring 2000 harvests in those areas, according to an analysis by industry and community groups.

The analysis was provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council when it met Jan. 8 in Seattle. It also showed the revised plan will cost the industry about $11.7 million.

Shore-based fishing boats and plants will bear the brunt of this with a $5.8 million loss, according to the analysis; $2.76 million of the loss will be borne by the offshore catcher/processor fleet, $1.05 million by mother ships, the floating processors that buy from smaller fishing boats, and $2.02 million by Community Development Quota groups in coastal villages, which sell or fish their assigned quotas of pollock and cod themselves or in joint ventures.

02/03/2001 - 8:00pm