NOAA Fisheries is seeking comment through Feb. 7 on a plan for abundance-based management of halibut in the Bering Sea.
The proposed rule would implement Amendment 123 to the fishery management plan for groundfish within the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands management area, as they relate to the Amendment 80 trawl sector prohibited species catch limit for Pacific halibut.
NOAA Fisheries said in its request for comment that Amendment 123 balances the interests of the two largest halibut user groups in the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands Fishery Management Area.
The Amendment 80 sector is a fleet of nearly 20 trawl catcher-processor boats targeting Pacific cod, Pacific Ocean perch, Atka mackerel and rock, yellowfin and flathead sole in the Bering Sea.
The action was initiated at the December 2021 meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to minimize halibut prohibited species catch to the extent practicable without compromising the ability to attain optimum yield in Bering Sea and Aleutian Island (BSAI) groundfish fisheries.
Pacific halibut are a target species in subsistence, personal use recreational and commercial halibut fisheries. Halibut is significant to the social, cultural and economic importance of fishery participants and communities throughout its geographical range.
The species is also taken incidentally as bycatch in groundfish fisheries. The BSAI Fishery Management Plan currently apportions the halibut prohibited species catch (PSC) limit between the Amendment 80 sector and the BSAI trawl limited access sector. The fishery management plan sets the annual halibut mortality PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector at 1,745 metric tons of halibut.
In recent years, catch limits for the commercial halibut fishery in the BSAI have declined in response to changing halibut stock conditions, while limits on the maximum amount of halibut PSC have allowed groundfish fisheries to remain constant.
As halibut abundance declines, the PSC limit has become a larger proportion of total halibut removals and the amendment 80 sector is accountable for the majority of the annual halibut PSC mortality in the BSAI groundfish fisheries.
The Amendment 80 halibut PSC limit should decline in proportion to reduced amounts of halibut available for harvest by all users, NOAA said in its announcement.
Amendment 123 would replace the current Amendment 80 sector status halibut PSC level of 1,745 metric tons. It would also establish a process for annually setting the halibut PSC limit for the Amendment 80 sector based on the most recent halibut abundance estimates.