Case Study

United States Bering Sea Groundfish Fisheries

Authors: Anne Hollowed and Stephen Kasperski

Groundfish fisheries in the eastern Bering Sea are federally managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional councils created by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (Witherell et al. 2000). The eastern Bering Sea groundfish fisheries include bottom and pelagic trawl fisheries that employ three different fleets with median vessel lengths between 38m and 100m. These fisheries are managed by the Bering Sea Aleutian Islands (BSAI) Groundfish Fishery Management Plan. This FMP follows the National Standards for following the Magnuson – Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act (MSA). Harvest specifications are based on best scientific information available (BSIA). Harvest specifications are reviewed annually based on scientific reviews conducted by the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Groundfish Plan Team (BSAI GPT) and the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).

These fisheries are managed through two catch share programs outlined in the BSAI FMP and through U.S. Congressional action (Fissel et al. 2019). In the late 1990s the American Fisheries Act (AFA) was passed providing an opportunity for cooperative fisheries for walleye pollock. The AFA which was authorised through Congressional action partly because it includes joint vessel-processor cooperative structure which was not allowed under the MSA as well as a limited access sector of catcher vessels. The AFA Pollock fleet comprises two sectors, catcher vessels (CV) with a median length of 38m that deliver to shoreside processors as well as at-sea motherships and catcher-processors (CPs) with a median length of 100m, both targeting walleye pollock. The pelagic trawl fishery primarily targets walleye pollock, and is the largest groundfish fishery in the EBS. The non-AFA groundfish catcher-processor bottom trawl catch share program was authorised through the 80th amendment to the BSAI FMP (also known as Amendment 80 or A80). The A80 fleet has a median vessel length of 57m and primarily targets flatfish, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel (Atka mackerel fisheries operate predominantly in the Aleutian Islands); and the BSAI CV bottom trawl fleet has a median length of 44m and primarily targets flatfish and Pacific cod (Fissel et al. 2022).

The primary flatfish species of interest are yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder, flathead sole, northern rock sole, Greenland turbot, Alaska plaice, and other flatfish. These fleets also, to a lesser degree, target rockfish species in the eastern Bering Sea including: Pacific ocean perch, northern rockfish, blackspotted-rougheye rockfish, other rockfish and Atka mackerel. The AFA and A80 Programs both operate as with cooperative structures and the individual vessels have “sideboard” restrictions that limit their ability to expand fishing beyond historical norms outside of the programs, but both fleets rely substantially on non-catch share species program revenues (both in the BSAI as well as the Gulf of Alaska (GOA)) for their operations. Some species such as Pacific cod are targeted using multiple gears and this case study considers non-trawl fisheries only within the context of the portfolio of possible adaptation options available to groundfish fishers.

In 1992, the community development quota (CDQ) program was initiated to provide opportunities for Alaska communities to benefit from the harvest of, as well as begin participation in the processing of, BSAI groundfish fisheries. Approximately 10% of the annual quotas for BSAI groundfish are allocated to the 6 regional economic development entities authorised by the CDQ Program.

Following the provisions of the MSA, the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) limits are less than or equal to the Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) which is set lower than the Overfishing Limit (OFL). A system level overall Optimal Yield provision caps total EBS groundfish catch at 2 million tons. This OY cap is a major constraint to expansion of groundfish fisheries in the EBS. A Tier system of catch constraints provides rules for setting the OFL and the maximum permissible ABC given the information available to estimate these reference points. Most of the stocks are managed using biomass and fishing mortality targets and limits and generally decrease fishing mortality when stocks fall below prescribed biomass targets and prohibiting directed fishing when stocks fall below biomass limits. Retention of target species is prohibited when catch exceeds the ABC and directed fisheries are closed in-season when the catch exceeds the OFL. Compliance to these various catch constraints is achieved through in-season monitoring of the catch through the deployment of at-sea observers, electronic monitoring, shoreside observers, log-books and fish tickets.

Numerous gear and time-area provisions have been established to reduce bycatch, reduce gear conflicts and protect essential fish habitat (Hollowed et al. 2011). Groundfish fisheries are constrained by prohibited species quotas which limit the amount of Pacific halibut, salmon, crab and herring that can be caught during directed groundfish fishing. Pacific halibut bycatch is the primary constraint on flatfish fisheries. Salmon bycatch is the primary constraint on pollock fisheries. Directed fisheries for forage fish (capelin, krill, smelt, eulachon) or squid are prohibited and bycatch of forage fish and squid in directed groundfish fisheries is monitored. In the early 2000s spatial closures, seasonal allocations of the TAC and minimum stock size thresholds for opening directed fisheries of pollock, cod and Atka mackerel were put in place to protect endangered Steller sea lions.

Collectively, time, area, and catch constraints have proven successful in sustaining viable groundfish. The non-pelagic trawl groundfish fishery primarily targets flatfish and Pacific cod (also targeted by pot and longline) across time and space spreading the footprint of trawl impacts (Smeltz et al. 2019). The major flatfish stocks exhibit evidence of niche partitioning and can be targeted effectively during some seasons. However, Pacific halibut (a prohibited species) exhibits a broad spatial distribution making time or area partitions an ineffective management tool for managing halibut bycatch (Baker and Hollowed, 2014). Therefore, managers rely on prohibited species caps as the main constraint to halibut bycatch in groundfish trawl fisheries in the EBS. To date, spatial closures for reducing crab (a prohibited species) bycatch have been effective when coupled with prohibited species caps in constraining crab bycatch.

As in most high latitude marine ecosystems, the eastern Bering Sea stocks are influenced by interannual and multi-year shifts in ocean conditions. In recent years, extreme events (i.e. marine heat waves) have resulted in marked shifts in reproductive success, spatial distribution and growth of several key groundfish. These serve as a harbinger for future changes in these fisheries. To address these issues, the NPFMC SSC considers the ecosystem status report (ESR) prior to setting harvest specifications and documents assessment related considerations, population dynamics, ecosystem considerations and fishery performance. The NPFMC proactively considers how it can improve ecosystem approaches to fishery management within its Bering Sea Fishery Ecosystem Plan (FEP) which includes task teams focused on climate change and improving ways to include Local, Traditional and Subsistence knowledge in decision making.

Resilience Attributes and Linkages

The Magnuson-Stevens Act and the current management system has sustained groundfish fisheries for over 40 years. The degree of resilience in the groundfish trawl fishery varies across sectors. Past vulnerability analyses concluded that the vulnerability to climate risk in these domains was low, in both the ecological and socio-economic dimensions (Himes-Cornell and Kasperski 2015; Spencer et al. 2019). However, recent heat waves have resulted in abrupt shifts in distribution and population abundance of gadids and snow crab suggesting that it is unclear whether the management system is capable of sustaining fisheries under some climate change and ocean acidification scenarios (Holsman et al. 2020; Punt et al. 2016; Stevenson and Lauth 2019).

Fishers, processors and distributors are highly organized and sophisticated. Many fishers have access to wealth and reserves, learning capacity, knowledge diversity, and innovation capital and benefit from strong social capital as a result of cooperatives that have improved communication and relationship between vessel owners in the fishery. Processors have aligned their products to meet market demands, enhancing economic opportunity in the system. Provisions in the FMP prohibit discards and unused product is processed as fish meal. A flexible infrastructure with a diverse product line has evolved to effectively process the fish to multiple markets. Alaskan groundfish is distributed to both domestic and international markets. Industry participants understand the fisheries management system and have a strong resilience mindset, understanding the importance of adapting and learning. They regularly attend North Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings and provide oral or written testimony on multiple decisions. However, the catch share programs retard entry into new fisheries (Szymkowiak and Rhodes-Reese 2020).

The participatory, accountable and adaptive management system allows managers to consider the opinions of multiple stakeholders in an effective and efficient manner. This system adheres to the scientific advice of the Scientific and Statistical Committee giving fishers access to knowledge and enhancing technology transfer in the system. The Advisory Panel allows for input on TAC setting and plan amendments.


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Photo: Amendment 80 vessels in the port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. Credit: NOAA