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Status of Stocks & Multispecies Assessment Program

Arctic Fishery Management Plan

figure 1, see caption
Figure 1.  Map of the U.S. Arctic north of Bering Strait showing the boundaries of the Arctic Management Area and the spatial extent of the two surveys used to produce biomass estimates and reference points for the Arctic fisheries management plan.

In February 2009, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a new fishery management plan (FMP) for the Alaskan Arctic. The Arctic FMP covers all U.S. Federal waters north of the Bering Strait and includes large portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas (Fig. 1).

If approved by the Secretary of Commerce, the FMP would effectively prohibit all commercial fishing in this Arctic management area. Scientists from the Status of Stocks & Multispecies Assessment (SSMA) and REEM Programs provided essential scientific advice to the Council and Alaska Region staff who drafted the FMP.

Meeting the requirements of the NMFS National Standard guidelines for FMPs was particularly challenging in the Arctic. Plans must specify reference points such as maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for target species, and include background data on the ecosystem. The small amount of fisheries research that has been conducted in the U.S. Arctic north of Bering Strait has been infrequent and rarely of the type that allows for quantitative assessment of fish stocks.

A University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) survey conducted in 1990 provided the best data regarding the density of fish and crab stocks in the northeastern Chukchi Sea. Fortunately, in August 2008 REFM scientists conducted a survey in the Beaufort Sea that provided density estimates for species there.

The densities were multiplied by the spatial area the surveys covered to provide estimates of biomass. Because the surveys covered only a portion of the Arctic management area (Fig. 1), those biomass values are probably underestimates.

The other main challenge was creating a fishery management plan for an area where no commercial fisheries currently exist. This seeming paradox posed legal difficulties but was solved using an elegant mathematical formula to identify three target fisheries that could be commercially viable: snow crab, Arctic cod, and saffron cod.

For each target species, MSY was calculated and the optimum yield (OY) was specified by reducing MSY based on scientific uncertainty as well as economic and ecological considerations. Because the level of uncertainty in the Arctic is very high (due to the scarcity of data), because fishing there is very expensive, and because all three species are important ecosystem components, the OY was set at essentially zero.

A small amount of catch is allowed to meet subsistence needs. The FMP specifies a number of requirements including the collection of data sufficient for effective management and an impacts analysis, that need to be met before the Council would considers opening a target fishery.

By Olav Ormseth

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