Last October, when the National Marine Fisheries Service notified the North Pacific Management Council that Bering Sea snow crab was officially “overfished,” a timer started ticking.
The Council had exactly two years from that moment to implement a plan to rebuild the stock. This is a requirement of the Magnuson Stevens Act, or MSA, the federal law that governs all U.S. fisheries. And as a matter of practicality they need to have the plan ready even sooner. To be certain there is enough time to enact new regulations, the Council is expected to present its plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service 15 months after the declaration. So the time it has left to act is quickly ticking away.
The designation “overfished” is a little misleading. Any stock of fish is called overfished when its numbers dip below the minimum level that would allow for a sustainable amount to be taken in a commercial fishery.
It doesn’t matter what caused the decline, whether it be fishing, climate change, predation, or a combination of factors. Hypotheses related to temperature, disease, bycatch, discards, cannibalism, and predation are all being explored to explain the over-the-cliff drop in snow crab biomass in the Eastern Bering Sea. A natural “mass mortality event” stretching from 2018 t0 2020 is thought to be a major factor in their sudden decline.
But management councils have no authority over Mother Nature. Fishing activity is the only thing they can do anything about, so that’s where the North Pacific Management Council will focus its efforts.
Of the crabs killed by fishing activity it estimates that 74-87% is due to the directed fishery, in other words, crab that goes into the tank. The NPMC also estimates that 30% of crabs thrown back over the side in the directed fishery wind up dying.
The mortality rate for crab caught as bycatch in trawl fisheries is thought to be 80%, and for those caught in cod pots they figure 50% do not survive being returned to the water. But bycatch in both of those fisheries combined has been estimated to be less than 1% of the total snow crab catch.
What they do not know much about is “unobserved mortality,” or crabs that are fatally crushed and mangled by interaction with bottom trawls but never captured, therefore never counted. Unobserved mortality is such a big question mark that it is not included in crab stock assessment numbers, nor does it count toward prohibited species catch (PSC) limits in the trawl fisheries.
A paper studying interactions between red king crab and bottom trawls noted: “The inability to accurately estimate unaccounted mortality does not preclude its consideration in management and fishing decisions. Unfortunately, the lack of information on unaccounted mortality means that those participating in such decisions have to combine and weigh a mixture of related knowledge, opinions, and suppositions to substitute for conclusive facts. This can be a source of considerable dispute and reservations about the ultimate decisions.”
Despite this uncertainty the Council seems to recognize the potential for these interactions to be significant, as they have been taking actions recently to raise trawls from the seafloor.
The Magnuson Stevens Act also specifies a 10-year time limit for the rebuilding plan to be successful. But that doesn’t mean the North Pacific Management Council couldn’t get the job done sooner. It is instructed to rebuild stocks in as short a time as possible. But the North Pacific Management Council is also required to take into account “the status and biology of any overfished stocks of fish, the needs of fishing communities, recommendations by international organizations in which the United States participates, and the interaction of the overfished stock of fish within the marine ecosystem. …”
So, in other words — everything.
And even though the North Pacific Management Council is tasked with rebuilding the stocks in 10 years or less, it could take longer if “biology of the stock, other environmental conditions, or management measures under an international agreement to which the U.S. participates, dictate otherwise…”
So in other words — unless you can’t.
The Council must also be able to say, without blushing, that the chances that its plan will work is better than 50/50.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet this week in Sitka. There it will be asked to identify possible alternatives and options of a future snow crab rebuilding plan for further study. The alternatives are pretty basic. The first is to do nothing at all. Consideration of the “no action” alternative is required in every action they consider, just to give them an exit if none of the other alternatives seems practical. In this case, however, the Council is required by the MSA to take action, because of the “overfished” designation. So that leaves it with the second alternative, which is to set a rebuilding time frame.
Under that alternative its options include shutting down the directed snow crab fishery until the stock is completely rebuilt. Or it could allow the state to open it during the rebuilding process if state harvest guidelines allow that. In addition, the Council could change the level of crab bycatch allowed by trawlers and pot fishermen up to and including eliminating crab bycatch altogether.
One factor to be considered when planning changes in bycatch regulations is the complexity of analyzing and implementing them. Complexity takes time. And that two-year timer will be ticking in the background, louder and louder, as the Council approaches its deadline. It is quite possible that the MSA alarm will go off before the Council can develop new bycatch limits, much less come to terms with unobserved mortality.
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee began meeting Monday. Its Advisory Panel started today. The Council meeting itself will begin on Thursday. Zoom links can be found at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s website.
Terry Haines was a commercial fisherman in Kodiak for more than 30 years. He now produces the Alaska Fisheries Report for KMXT and is a member of the Kodiak City Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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