NMML staff contributed to the development and finalization of the Biological Opinion authorizing groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands region based on the Fishery Management Plan for Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands Groundfish, and groundfish fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska based on the Fishery Management Plan for Gulf of Alaska Groundfish. The Biological Opinion was signed by Don Knowles, Director of the NMFS Office of Protected Resources on 30 November 2000. The agency determined in the opinion that the proposed action is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the western population of the Steller sea lion and is also likely to adversely modify the designated critical habitat for this population. A “no jeopardy/no adverse modification” determination was made for the other 21 endangered or threatened species that occur in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone of the North Pacific and Bering Sea
In the Biological Opinion, NMFS identified several factors that could also be contributing to the decline of the population of western Steller sea lions, such as the effects of a shift in a large scale weather regime (i.e., the Pacific Decadal Oscillation) and predation by killer whales. However, given the available data, NMFS could not conclude that either or both of these factors were entirely responsible for the observed decline in abundance of the Steller sea lion western population over the last 25 years.
To avoid jeopardy and remove the possibility that the proposed action will adversely modify the critical habitat of the Steller sea lion, a “reasonable and prudent alternative (RPA)” (as defined in the Endangered Species Act) was developed. This alternative action included multiple components, such as: 1) adoption of a new harvest control rule, which will impose a more precautionary fishing strategy; 2) extension of 3 nmi protective zones around rookeries to all major haul outs; 3) closures of many areas around rookeries and haul outs to 20 nmi to directed fishing for walleye pollock, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel; 4) establishment of four seasonal limits inside critical habitat and two seasonal releases outside of critical habitat; and 5) establishment of a procedure for setting limits on removal levels in critical habitat proportional to the abundance in critical habitat of pollock, Pacific cod, and Atka mackerel.
In addition, NMFS took advantage of the areas open and closed to fishing to develop an experimental design for ascertaining the extent to which the implemented conservation measures will promote the recovery of the western population of Steller sea lions.
By Douglas DeMaster.
NMML staff along with staff from the Alaska Regional Office presented a briefing to the NPFMC during the week of 6 December 2000 in Anchorage. In addition, a joint briefing was presented to the Council’s Advisory Panel and Scientific and Statistical Committee. The presentations included:
A summary of the legislative and management history related to Steller sea lion- groundfish interactions
A synopsis of mandates and remands related to the ongoing litigation
A review of the status of ESA-listed species that occur in the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea
A summary of what is referred to in the ESA as “environmental baseline” information (e.g., naturally caused changes in the environment, impacts of commercial fishing, impacts of harvests on ESA-listed species, impacts of oil and gas development, and impacts of research)
An analysis of the impacts of the groundfish fishery in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea
The effects of State of Alaska managed fisheries on ESA-listed species
Conclusions regarding jeopardy and adverse modification of critical habitat
A description of the conservation measure designed to avoid jeopardy and adverse modification of critical habitat for Steller sea lions, including examples of how the fishery would be managed in calendar year 2001
A summary of additional conservation measures recommended by NMFS at this time
After considerable comment from the Council’s Advisory Panel, Scientific and Statistical Committee, and the public, the Council passed a final motion on Steller sea lions on 9 December 2000. The motion included the statement that “the Council not adopt the conclusions of the Biological Opinion with regard to Steller sea loins or the RPAs contained therein.” In addition, the Council called for a “review and analysis of the proposed RPAs in the current biological opinion” and moved that the Council conduct an independent peer review of the Biological Opinion and experimental design and to evaluate other possible explanations for the decline of Steller sea lions and the ability of Steller sea lions to recover.”
By Douglas DeMaster.
On 13 September 2000, two beluga whales were captured, tagged, and released in the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet, Alaska, by NMML scientists. The first beluga (referred to as Paul) is a 268-cm (8’ 11”) juvenile female; the second (referred to as Ringo) is a 413 cm (13’ 7”) adult male. Satellite tags, which provide location and dive data, were attached to the dorsal ridge of each whale. The tags communicate with an ARGOS satellite when the antenna is exposed above the surface of the water, such as when the whale surfaces to breathe. In addition to the satellite tag, a time depth recorder (TDR) was also attached to Paul via a suction cup. The TDR recorded information on diving behavior every second for 55 hours. This instrument however remained on the whale for over 90 hours.
The satellite tag on Ringo transmitted data for approximately 113 days (the last position was received 3 January 2001), while the satellite tag deployed on Paul continues to transmit. Between mid-September and mid-January, the two whales remained in upper Cook Inlet, although not together (Figs. 1 and 2 above). Ringo spent most of his time in Chickaloon Bay, with a few excursions to Knik Arm and the Susitna River. Paul, however, traveled widely in the upper inlet spending most of her time in the Susitna River delta and Knik Arm, going as far south as Redoubt Bay. Based on these preliminary results, it appears that at least some belugas stay in Cook Inlet through early winter and move about freely in areas that sometimes include heavy ice cover.
By Kristin Laidre.
A consolidated research plan for all NMFS-funded studies on Alaska harbor seals was completed in cooperation with the NMFS Alaska Regional Office during 2000. Such research is carried out principally by three groups: the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory; the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation (ADF&G); and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. The combined research efforts by NMFS and the ADF&G focus on statewide harbor seal population abundance estimation, stock identification, trends in abundance, general biology and life history, and human interactions.
Prior to the development of this research plan, no comprehensive document existed that described the diverse studies being undertaken by various research groups. The plan has a 5-year outlook and will be revised annually. The new plan will provide for a more effective evaluation of existing Alaska harbor seal research. It is hoped that the research plan will also enhance communication in the comanagement process between NMFS and the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission, by drawing together current and proposed descriptions of harbor seal research projects funded by NMFS.
By John Bengtson.
Small groups of northern right whales (Eubalaena japonica) have been seen in the southeastern Bering Sea each July since 1996. The exciting discovery of this remnant population prompted dedicated aerial surveys of these waters, flown each July since 1998, to determine whale numbers and distribution and to take identification photographs of as many individuals as possible. Results of these surveys suggest northern right whales aggregate in a very predictable location each summer (Fig. 1 above), but provide no clues as to when whales arrive in these waters or where they might travel during other seasons. In early 2000, NMML contracted with Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) to build four autonomous passive acoustic recorders capable of 1-year deployment. The recorders, dubbed ARPs for Autonomous Recording Packages, were fabricated at SIO, then shipped to Seattle for transport to the Bering Sea. On 2 October 2000, the four recorders were deployed in 50-70 m deep water near the northern right whale sighting locations (Fig. 1 above). The ARPs will record whale calls to disk for the duration of their deployment and thereby provide an index of occurrence for this rare species over the course of an entire year. Retrieval of the ARPs is currently planned for mid- to late summer 2001, depending on the availability of a suitable platform. Right whale calls recorded during 2-weeks of ship operations in 1999 will be used to develop call recognition software to aid in data processing. If all goes well, we should have a much better understanding of seasonal occurrence of northern right whales in the southeastern Bering Sea by summer 2002.
By Sue Moore.
NMML hosted a 2-day course on aviation safety. The course was taught by instructors from the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service as part of a training program offered by the Alaska Interagency Aviation Work Group under the direction of the Office of Aircraft Services. The course was designed for aircrew members who fly at low altitudes, as is often necessary during aerial surveys of marine mammals. The course had two components: “Basic Airplane & Helicopter Safety” and “At-sea Ditching & Survival.” Participants learned about aircraft capabilities and limitations, crash survival, personal protective equipment, and post-crash survival techniques under challenging conditions. The instructors covered these topics in the classroom, reinforced them with real-life survival stories and personal experiences, and concluded with pool sessions simulating ditching at sea. The dunker training mimicked a small aircraft cockpit, in which participants, tightened in their harnesses, were toppled upside-down into the water and allowed to practice egress and surfacing techniques according to established procedures. The pool sessions also provided the opportunity to test out different options of survival gear (e.g., survival suit, life raft) used during these emergency procedures.
By John Jansen.
The 12th meeting of the Alaska Scientific Review Group (AKSRG) was held at the NMFS Alaska Regional Office in Juneau 1-3 November 2000. Staff from NMML, the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Regional Office presented fisheries and marine mammal data and facilitated the meeting. The main objectives of the meeting were to review the revised 2001 Stock Assessment Reports (SARs) for marine mammal stocks in Alaska and to discuss recent information on Alaska harbor seal abundance and genetics. Special attention was given to updated assessment information on killer whales, humpback whales, and ice seals. The final 2000 SAR is expected to be available in February 2001, and the draft 2001 SAR is expected to be available for public comment by March 2001.
By Robyn Angliss.
Two workshops addressing different components of the impacts of the oil and gas industry on marine mammals in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea were held in November 2000. One workshop focused on information available for assessing the cumulative impacts of oil and gas exploration on the bowhead whale fall migration and subsistence harvest and on designing new studies which would further this effort. The second workshop was the third in a series of workshops designed to review the results of previous on-ice monitoring efforts and to recommend changes in future monitoring programs in order to better determine what, if any, impacts to ice seals occur due to oil and gas industry activities. Reports for both workshops will be available in spring 2001.
By Robyn Angliss.