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April-June 2006
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Status of Stocks & Multispecies Assessment Program

Section 7 Consultation

Scientists from the REFM Division responded to a request for assistance on an Endangered Species Act (ESA) Section 7 consultation. In October 2005, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) recommended that NMFS reinitiate consultation under Section 7 of the ESA. The consultation is on the possible effects of authorizing fisheries pursuant to the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands (BSAI) and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) groundfish fishery management plans on ESA listed species, such as Steller sea lions, and their critical habitat under jurisdiction of NMFS. In a 29 November 2005 letter to the Council, NMFS agreed with the recommendation and described the process NMFS would follow for the consultation. NMFS plans to provide a draft Biological Opinion (Opinion) on the proposed action by mid-August 2006 and a final Opinion by late 2007.

In preparation for writing the Opinion, a consultation group was formed, consisting of representatives from Sustainable Fisheries Division (Melanie Brown), the Council (Bill Wilson), the Protected Resources Division (Shane Capron) and the AFSC (Lowell Fritz and Libby Logerwell). The consultation group developed a list of important issues related to ESA-listed Steller sea lions and their designated critical habitat and held a workshop in Seattle in February 2006 to refine those issues into a series of requests for information.

A memorandum listing these requests for information was sent to AFSC Science and Research Director Doug DeMaster in mid-March 2006. REFM scientists conducted the necessary analyses and syntheses of existing information and prepared detailed responses to all of the requests for information. The responses were completed and sent to DeMaster for review in mid-May and forwarded to Protected Resources personnel responsible for drafting the Opinion.

By Elizabeth Logerwell

Bering Sea Crab Working Group Progress Report

King and Tanner crab stocks of the eastern Bering Sea (EBS) are managed under the aegis of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) King and Tanner Crab Fishery Management Plan (FMP) of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC). The plan provides the framework for cooperative management of these stocks between the ADF&G and NMFS. Under this framework, certain management controls such as setting of annual catch quotas and fishery restrictions are deferred to the ADF&G, while NMFS is responsible for making the two annual status determination criteria of overfishing and overfished and for insuring overall plan compliance with the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Management Act (MSFCMA) and the National Standard Guidelines (NSGs).

Since 1998, four of the ecologically important and economically valuable crab stocks of the EBS have been declared overfished, and fisheries for several more stocks are closed due to low levels of stock biomass. The existing overfishing definitions for crab stocks under the FMP were established in 1998, with a provision for review after 5 years. A Working Group (WG) of the NPFMC's Crab Plan Team consisting of NMFS and ADF&G scientists was formed in September 2003 to evaluate the current overfishing definitions and to propose revisions in those definitions to insure the conservation and effective utilization of the stocks. The WG was also charged with ensuring that the revisions to the FMP were consistent with the operational tenets and mandates of the MSFCMA and the NSGs.

Since its inception, the Crab Working Group has been actively involved in characterizing the relevant life-history and population dynamic characteristics of the EBS crab stocks suitable to formulating new overfishing definitions. It has also actively developed requisite modeling frameworks necessary to derive these definitions, improved length-based stock assessment methodologies, and crafted simulation models to enable the evaluation of overfishing control rules and rebuilding strategies of overfished stocks. The complex nature of crab reproductive dynamics, mating processes, male only fisheries, and the lack of age and other essential life-history information all contribute to difficulties in developing appropriate thresholds.

The WG has succeeded in developing a tier system similar to the current groundfish management plan tier system which has been approved by the NPFMC Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC). A NPFMC-sponsored workshop on proposed overfishing definitions, and the WG's modeling efforts, was held in Seattle in February 2006 to assist in clarifying some of the complex biological issues. The workshop included members of NMFS, the ADF&G, and the SSC, as well as other prominent regional and international crab biologists and stock assessment scientists.

In April 2006, NMFS funded a peer review of the modeling products and preliminary results of the WG by the Center for Independent Experts (CIE). The CIE review resulted in many informative and helpful suggestions on the work to revise these overfishing definitions. Preliminary analyses by the WG and the CIE review were presented to the SSC at its June, 2006 meeting. Based on review of these results, the SSC gave their approval for the Crab Working Group to proceed forward with developing a Draft Environmental Assessment (EA) to formally amend the existing BSAI King and Tanner Crab FMP. The EA is scheduled to be presented to the SSC in the fall of 2006.

By Lou Rugolo (RACE, Kodiak Laboratory) and Jack Turnock (REFM)

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