The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of the eight regional councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 to manage fisheries in the U.S. 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. The Council’s jurisdiction includes all of the federally-managed fisheries off Alaska, with a focus on groundfish species harvested by trawl, longline, jig, and pot gear. The primary purpose of the Council is to develop fishery management plans to provide sustainable fisheries, through a partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service, with input from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, other state and federal agencies, and the public.
A sustainable and viable fishing industry is extremely important to Alaska’s economy. Fisheries are the number one private sector employer in Alaska, and are second only to oil in generating revenue to the State. Commercial harvest of groundfish off Alaska’s coast has averaged from 3 to 5 billion pounds annually since 1976. This equates to about one half of the total U.S. fish and shellfish harvests. Dockside value of these fisheries is currently about $1 billion annually, prior to any value-added processing and re-sale.
The framework for managing federal fisheries lies within the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which was recently reauthorized and will guide federal management over the next several years. Major revisions to the Act included tighter conservation requirements for setting annual catch limits, rebuilding overfished stocks, and incorporating more rigid scientific input into management systems. Many of these new provisions were based on the management program developed for Alaska, which had been heralded as a model for sustainable fisheries by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.
The primary basis for this recognition, and the reason that Alaska’s groundfish fisheries remain vibrant, stems from a reliance on sound science and a policy of strict annual catch limits. Catch limits are established well below the levels deemed ‘biologically acceptable.’ In the 30 years this system has been in place, the Council has never set a catch limit exceeding the recommendations of its Scientific and Statistical Committee, whose membership includes over a dozen world-class fisheries and marine scientists. The in-season management of these fisheries, based on data from a comprehensive on-board observer program and real-time, electronic catch reporting administered by NMFS, ensures that both catch and bycatch limits are not exceeded. All catch, whether retained or discarded, counts toward the annual limits, and fisheries are closed when those limits are attained.
To protect habitat from potential degradation due to fishing, the Council has implemented a number of large closures over the years, including a ban on trawling in the entire eastern subarea of the Gulf of Alaska and numerous areas in the Bering Sea designed primarily to protect important areas for juvenile king and tanner crab. More recently, the Council closed 95% of the Aleutian Islands management area to bottom trawling, and designated several smaller areas in the Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska as closed to all commercial fishing to protect specific coral gardens and deep-sea pinnacles. These closure areas total nearly 400,000 square miles, or nearly 40% of the area managed by the Council and NMFS. Additional habitat protection areas in the Bering Sea are currently under consideration by the Council.
Steller sea lions have long been a key consideration in management of the North Pacific fisheries, beginning in the late 1980s when closure areas were enacted around rookeries and haul-out sites. More recently, beginning in 2001, the Council implemented a sweeping array of management measures including spatial and temporal closures of fisheries for pollock, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel throughout the Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea, and Aleutian Islands, in order to reduce potential competition for sea lion prey and minimize overlap with sea lion critical habitat. These closures, implemented at great economic expense to the fishing industry, total an additional 58,000 square miles.
The management approach for North Pacific fisheries also takes into account the effects of fisheries on the entire ecosystem. Natural mortality, due to predation by marine mammals, seabirds, and other fish species, is accounted for in the annual stock assessment process upon which annual catch limits for each fish species are based. As an additional layer of precautionary management, an overall ‘optimum yield’ cap limits the overall catch of all species combined, even if the cap is lower than scientifically determined safe levels of removals.
For example, catch limits in the Bering Sea are held to a total limit of 2 million metric tons annually, while scientifically acceptable catch levels have ranged from 2.5 to 4 million metric tons over the past several years. Recent initiatives to even more explicitly embrace ecosystem considerations include development of a fishery ecosystem plan specifically for the Aleutian Islands.
The Council initiated the Alaska Marine Ecosystem Forum, a collaboration of federal agencies with various jurisdictions and resource stewardship responsibilities, with the Aleutian Islands subarea as the initial focus. The Council also initiated development of a fishery management plan for the Arctic Oceans area, including the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, in order to explore management approaches and measures necessary to control potential development of fisheries in those waters.
North Pacific fisheries in particular, have thrived under the Council management system for 30 years. Yet challenges on the horizon will undoubtedly further test the efficacy of this management program in maintaining sustainable, healthy fish stocks and marine ecosystems. Key commercial species in the North Pacific, including pollock, cod, and halibut, have been at historic all-time high abundance levels for several years. It is likely that quotas for these species will decrease over the next few years in response to changing environmental conditions. Managers will need the continued support of the North Pacific fishing industry to adhere to our scientifically-driven system, and adjust accordingly to the ebb and flow of resource abundance.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act and the regional Council process provide the tools necessary for responsible stewardship of our marine resources. The process is science-based, deliberative, and transparent, and provides for substantial public input during decision-making.
The process also gives managers the many tools they need to manage for economic benefit and long-term sustainability in a dynamic environment. It is critical that management programs continue to be tailored to regional conditions, with significant input from affected constituencies.
New provisions of the recently reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act will encourage better use of the process and tools necessary to achieve sustainability of our nation’s fisheries.