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Resource Ecology &
Fisheries Management

(Quarterly Report for April-May-June 1998)

U.S. Groundfish Observer Program

One hundred and three observers were trained, briefed, and equipped for deployment to fishing and processing vessels and shoreside plants in the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and North Pacific waters off the coasts of Oregon and Washington during the second quarter of 1998.  Forty of these observers were briefed in Seattle at the AFSC Observer Program, 9 in Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, Alaska, at the Observer Program’s field offices, and 40 in Anchorage at the University of Alaska (UAA) observer training center.  Another six were excused because they had just completed a debriefing and were returning immediately to the field on another contract.  In addition, eight first-time observers were trained by the UAA.

Observers sampled aboard 279 fishing and processing vessels and at 16 shoreside processing plants.  Ninety-two percent of the observers hired in the second quarter had previous domestic observer experience.

The Observer Program conducted a total of 172 debriefings during the second quarter of 1998.  Three debriefings were held in Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, and 169 were held in Seattle.

The Observer Program has developed a computer software application (ATLAS) which allows groundfish observers to enter and send data directly from their assigned vessels and plants to the NMFS office in Seattle.  The implementation of this data-reporting system benefits NMFS and the fishing industry in numerous ways.  It reduces the data processing time considerably, and the error-checking functions of the software provide all users with higher quality data.

Using this application also benefits the observer.  It has markedly reduced debriefing time and the time required to complete paperwork at sea.  The reduction in paperwork allows observers to focus more on collecting the data needed to manage the groundfish fisheries.

Electronic reporting of observer sampling data from sea using ATLAS is now occurring on about 63 at-sea processing vessels, 11 shoreside plants, and 6 shoreside delivery vessels.  The use of ATLAS at shoreside processors and shoreside delivery vessels is currently being tested in Dutch Harbor and Kodiak.

At its February 1998 meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) approved the third-party, joint partnership agreement (JPA) with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) to provide observer procurement services.  The intent of the JPA was to provide observer procurement and placement services that would be consistent with broader goals of collecting high quality observer data, providing adequate observer compensation and working conditions, and maintaining efficient deployment of observers within the groundfish industry.  Recently, several unresolvable legal issues were identified by the PSMFC that have forestalled efforts to proceed with the JPA.  The current Observer Program is scheduled to expire at the end of 1998 in anticipation that the JPA would have been implemented by 1999.  Given the status of the JPA, the council, at its June 1998 meeting, voted to extend the current program into 1999 to avoid a lapse in observer coverage.

By Bob Maier.

Age and Growth Task

From January to June 1998 members of the Age and Growth Task estimated the ages of  789 flathead sole, 336 rock sole, 584 Dover sole, 466 yellowfin sole, 660 arrowtooth flounder, 2,810 walleye pollock, 715 sablefish, 439 Atka mackerel, 1,760 Pacific whiting, 393 Pacific ocean perch, for a total of 8,952 samples. Also, 1,462 samples were tested, 691 were updated, and 90 were examined and determined to be unreadable.

Resource Ecology and Ecosystems Modeling

A total of 303 fish stomachs were collected and 240 scanned at sea in the eastern Bering Sea, and none were collected in other regions.  Laboratory analysis was performed on 2,096 stomachs from the Bering Sea, 177 from the Gulf of Alaska and Aleutian Islands region, and 9 from the Washington-Oregon-California region.

The Oracle database on Orca contains hydrographic data collected during Russian research surveys of the eastern Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and Washington-Oregon-California regions from 1950 to 1997.  There are a total of 8,468 stations with 4,293 stations in the eastern Bering Sea, 257 for the Aleutian Islands, 2,652 for the Gulf of Alaska, and 1,266 for the Washington-Oregon-California area. The data collected at the hydrographic stations include temperature, salinity, oxygen, alkalinity, phosphates, total phosphorus, and silicates at various water column depths.  Some of these stations coincide in space and time with Russian research trawl survey information that was also recently put on Orca.  For assistance using these data, contact Doug Smith,
(, (206)526-4225).

Seasonal Apportionment of Atka Mackerel Catch in Aleutian Islands to Aid Steller Sea Lion Recovery

A 4-year timetable to temporally disperse and reduce the level of Atka mackerel fishing effort within Steller sea lion critical habitat in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands district was passed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in June 1998. According to the proposed fishery plan amendment, the Atka mackerel fishery will  1) have two seasonal releases, each with half the TAC (total allowable catch):  an A-season beginning 20 January and a  B-season beginning 1 September; and 2) reduce the level of its harvest within critical habitat in the Aleutian Islands region from the current 80% of TAC to 40% within 4 years.  The reduction in critical habitat catch levels is accomplished differently in each of the three Aleutian Islands management districts, as shown in Table 1 below for areas 542 (the central Aleutian district) and 543 (the western Aleutian district).

Table 1. Percent of Atka mackerel catch inside and outside of Steller sea lion critical habitat (CH).

Aleutian Island District
542 543
Year(s) Inside CH Outside CH Inside CH Outside CH
  1995-97#       95%         5%       85%       15%
  1999*       80%      20%       65%       35%
  2000*       67%      33%       57%       43%
  2001*       54%      46%       49%       51%


      40%      60%       40%       60%

#  Recent 3-year average
*  Proposed reduction in inside-CH proportions in 4 years.

In area 541, no prescribed movement of the fishery outside of critical habitat has been mandated, but the 20-nmi trawl exclusion zones around Seguam and Agligadak rookeries that have been in place only for the walleye pollock A-season will operate for the Atka mackerel B-season as well.  These changes are proposed to take effect in 1999.

Changes in the management of the Atka mackerel fishery were necessary to address the possibility that the fishery creates localized depletions of Steller sea lion prey (Atka mackerel) and adversely modifies Steller sea lion critical habitat by disproportionately removing prey.  Leslie depletion analyses conducted on 37 time-area Atka mackerel fisheries in the Aleutian Islands region since 1986 revealed that significant declines in fishery catch-per-unit-effort (CPUE) occurred when catches from an area were large (in 17 of 37 cases).  Using the Leslie-derived estimates of initial biomass, the local harvest rates of Atka mackerel in times and areas which showed significant declines in CPUE may have ranged between 40% and 94%.  Furthermore, harvest rates in all the fished areas in 1996 and 1997 may have been 56% and 37%, rates which were approximately five and three times higher, respectively, than the target harvest rate of 12% on the Aleutian-wide Atka mackerel population.  Temporal and spatial dispersion of the fishery increasingly into areas outside of Steller sea lion critical habitat could decrease the likelihood that the fishery creates localized depletions of sea lion prey or adversely modifies critical habitat.

While it is unlikely that catches of Atka mackerel over the last 20 years in the Aleutian Islands have caused the Steller sea lion population to decline, the current fishery could be an impediment to their recovery.  The Steller sea lion population has declined approximately 80% over the last 25 years, with the steepest rates of decline observed from 1985-89.  Since then, the population has continued to decline, but at reduced rates of between 0% and 10% per year (depending on the area).  Of all the groundfish fisheries off Alaska, the Atka mackerel fishery has typically caught the greatest percentage of its target species catch within areas now designated as Steller sea lion critical habitat.

By Lowell Fritz.

Shellfish Assessment

Earlier analysis of the statistical distribution of survey catch rates for Chionecetes bairdi and C. opilio for the 1980-96 period demonstrated a mild degree of skewness.  However, distribution tail weights were not heavy enough to warrant alternative estimation of mean density.  Prior results obtained from a similar analysis of survey catch rates for red king crab indicated distribution tail weights were of a magnitude to require an alternate estimator.  In order to gain insight into these differences between species, Visual Basic coding of the statistical estimation process has been developed.

By Jerry Reeves.

Flatfish Stock Assessment Review

A review of the REFM Division’s flatfish stock assessments was conducted from 18 to 21 May 1998.  The review panel, consisting of fishery scientists from the NMFS Woods Hole Laboratory, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (Canada), and the University of Alaska School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, was tasked with critically reviewing the current status of the flatfish stock assessments as well as providing recommendations on how these assessments could be improved.  Center scientists gave presentations on flatfish stock assessments to the review panel focusing on the quality and quantity of the data used, the general nature of the assessments, the modeling constructs, and how the results were communicated to fishery managers and decision makers.  They also presented information on the:

  • flatfish fisheries and current management

  • trawl surveys in the Bering Sea, the Aleutian Islands, and the Gulf of Alaska

  • the Observer Program and catch estimation procedures and problems

  • bottom-typing studies

  • flatfish trophic studies

  • maturity research

  • catchability studies

  • flatfish species growth rates during a period of increasing growth of the flatfish population in the Bering Sea.

The report submitted by the review panel addressed four general areas of research:  fishery independent data collection programs; fishery dependent data collection programs; biological and  ecological research; and stock assessments and assessment methods.  The review team was impressed with the scope and direction of work being performed and indicated that the data collection procedures and supporting research were appropriate and that the methods used were sound.  The review team report provided recommendations that will help Center scientists produce improved flatfish stock assessments.

By Jack Turnock.

Socioeconomic Assessment Task

During the past quarter, the Socioeconomic Assessment Task has been heavily involved in activities in support of the Pacific and North Pacific Fishery Management Councils (PFMC and NPFMC, respectively), the implementation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and other cooperative efforts within the agency and beyond.

  • Council Activities

  1. Inshore Offshore Allocation III - The current allocation of Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands (BSAI) and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) walleye pollock and GOA Pacific cod between inshore and offshore processors expires at the end of this year.  Therefore, establishing the allocation for 1999 and beyond has been a high priority for the NPFMC this year.  Task members assisted in preparing and presenting the draft analysis for the April council meeting and assisted in revising the analysis for public and council review prior to the June council meeting.  At its June meeting, the NPFMC recommended that the current allocation in the GOA be extended for 3 more years and that the BSAI pollock allocation to inshore processors be increased from its current level of 35% to 39%.

  2. Cost Recovery Program for the IFQ and CDQ Programs - The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the Secretary of Commerce to implement a program to recover the management and enforcement costs of the Alaska Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) and Community Development Quota (CDQ) programs.  A Task member assisted in revising a draft proposal for the cost recovery program and presenting the proposal to council committees.

  3. Aleutian Islands Atka Mackerel Management - In response to the concern that the Atka mackerel fishery could cause localized depletion of Atka mackerel stocks and, therefore, adversely affect Steller sea lions, several alternative methods of preventing localized depletion were developed.  Task members assisted in revising the draft analysis of alternatives for council and public review prior to the June council meeting.  In June, the council recommended a combination of seasonal allocations and limits on the amount of the Atka mackerel quotas that could be taken in Steller sea lion critical habitat.

  4. Bycatch in the BSAI and GOA Groundfish Fisheries - The 1996 revisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act included three new national standards.  One of them, national standard nine, requires that fishery management plans contain conservation and management measures that will, to the extent practicable, minimize bycatch and bycatch mortality.  In response to this new requirement, the council has begun to address additional methods for reducing bycatch.  A task member has assisted in developing a proposal to apportion the halibut and crab bycatch quotas to individual vessels and the preliminary analysis of two other proposals to reduce bycatch: the halibut mortality avoidance program and the vessel checklist program.  A council committee met in May to discuss all three proposals.

  5. PFMC Groundfish Management - A task member prepared and presented analysis to the PFMC on the viability of an industry-funded buy-back of limited-entry permits, developed new models for projecting in-season catch rates for several limited-entry and open-access fisheries, presented the new models and their results to the council, and provided technical support for the PFMC’s allocation committee.

  • Magnuson-Stevens Act

The Task contributed to Magnuson-Stevens Act implementation activities in a renewed and successful effort to use a broad definition of “bycatch” in the NMFS Bycatch Plan.  The Magnuson-Stevens Act defines bycatch as “fish which are harvested in a fishery, but which are not sold or kept for personal use, and includes economic discards and regulatory discards . . .”  This definition explicitly includes discarded fish and implicitly includes unobserved fishing mortality.  The latter is the mortality of fish that are not captured by a fisherman, but die as the direct result of an encounter with fishing gear.  It does not include indirect mortality resulting from changes to the environment as a result of fishing activity.  Unobserved fishing mortality is included because it consists of fish which are harvested (i.e., caught, taken, or harvested) in a fishery but which are not sold or kept for personal use.

In order to meet fully the agency’s conservation and management responsibilities as defined principally by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act, NMFS expanded this definition in two ways.  First, all living marine resources other than “fish” as defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Act (i.e., marine mammals and seabirds) were included to consider all species taken in marine fisheries.  Second, the retained catch of nontarget species (i.e., retained incidental catch) was included.

  • Other Activities

Task members participated in the following cooperative activities:

  • development of programs to collect and model economic data for the Pacific Coast and Alaska commercial fisheries

  • development of the Alaska Fisheries Information Network (AKFIN)

  • preparation of a report on Task research for the Technical Subcommittee of the U.S.-Canada Groundfish Committee

  • participation on the PFMC Groundfish Management Team

  • preparation of information for Senate Bill 1221, the American Fisheries Act

  • the preparation of papers for the International Institute for Fisheries Economics and Trade.

By Joe Terry.