Fishery conservation and management: Alaska; fisheries of Exclusive Economic Zone— Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands groundfish,

 
CONTENT

[Federal Register: February 27, 2004 (Volume 0, Number 0)]

[Page 9242-9261]

From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]

[DOCID:fr27fe04-16]

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 679

[Docket No. 031124287-4060-02; I.D. 111703C]

Fisheries of the Exclusive Economic Zone Off Alaska; Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands; Final 2004 Harvest Specifications for Groundfish

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Final 2004 harvest specifications for groundfish; apportionment of reserves; closures.

SUMMARY: NMFS announces final 2004 harvest specifications and prohibited species catch (PSC) allowances for the groundfish fishery of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands management area (BSAI). This action is necessary to establish harvest limits for groundfish during the 2004 fishing year and to accomplish the goals and objectives of the Fishery Management Plan for the Groundfish Fishery of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Management Area (FMP). The intended effect of this action is to conserve and manage the groundfish resources in the BSAI.

DATES: The final 2004 harvest specifications and associated apportionment of reserves are effective at 1200 hrs, Alaska local time (A.l.t.), February 27, 2004, through 2400 hrs, A.l.t., December 31, 2004.

ADDRESSES: Copies of the Final Environmental Assessment (EA) and Final Regulatory Flexibility Analysis (FRFA) prepared for this action are available from Alaska Region, NMFS, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802- 1668, Attn: Lori Durall. The Final 2003 Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report, dated November 2003, are available from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, West 4th Avenue, Suite 306, Anchorage, AK 99510-2252 (907-271-2809) or from its Home page at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc .

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Mary Furuness, 907-586-7228 or e-mail mary.furuness@noaa.gov.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

Federal regulations at 50 CFR part 679 that implement the FMP govern the groundfish fisheries in the BSAI. The Council prepared the FMP and NMFS approved it under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. General regulations governing U.S. fisheries also appear at 50 CFR part 600.

The FMP and its implementing regulations require NMFS, after consultation with the Council, to specify annually the total allowable catch (TAC) for each target species and for the ``other species'' category, the sum of which must be within the optimum yield range of 1.4 million to 2.0 million metric tons (mt) (see Sec. 679.20(a)(1)(i)). Also specified are apportionments of TACs, and Community Development Quota (CDQ) reserve amounts, PSC allowances, and prohibited species quota (PSQ) reserve amounts. Regulations at Sec. 679.20(c)(3) further require NMFS to consider public comment on the proposed annual TACs and apportionments thereof and the proposed PSC allowances, and to publish final specifications in the Federal Register. The final specifications set forth in Tables 1 through 17 of this action satisfy these requirements. For 2004, the sum of TACs is 2 million mt.

The proposed BSAI groundfish specifications and PSC allowances for the groundfish fishery of the BSAI were published in the Federal Register on December 3, 2003 (68 FR 67642). Comments were invited and accepted through January 2, 2004. NMFS received one letter of comment on the proposed specifications. This letter of comment is summarized and responded to in the Response to Comments section. NMFS consulted with the Council during the December 2003 Council meeting in Anchorage, AK. After considering public comments, as well as biological and economic data that were available at the Council's December meeting, NMFS is implementing the final 2004 groundfish harvest specifications as recommended by the Council.

Regulations at Sec. 679.20(c)(2)(ii) establish the interim amounts of each proposed initial TAC (ITAC) and allocations thereof, of each CDQ reserve established by Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(iii), and of the proposed PSC allowances and PSQ reserves established by Sec. 679.21 that become available at 0001 hours, A.l.t., January 1, and remain available until superseded by the final specifications. NMFS published the interim 2004 groundfish harvest specifications in the Federal Register on December 8, 2003 (68 FR 68265). Regulations at Sec. 679.20(c)(2)(ii) do not provide for an interim specification for either the hook-and-line or pot gear sablefish CDQ reserve or for sablefish managed under the Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) management plan. The final 2004 groundfish harvest specifications, PSC allowances and PSQ reserves contained in this action supersede the interim 2004 groundfish harvest specifications.

Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) and TAC Specifications

The final ABC levels are based on the best available scientific information, including projected biomass trends, information on assumed distribution of stock biomass, and revised technical methods used to calculate stock biomass. In general, the development of ABCs and overfishing levels (OFLs) involves sophisticated statistical analyses of fish populations and is

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based on a successive series of 6 levels, or tiers, of reliable information available to fishery scientists. Tier one represents the highest level of information and tier six the lowest level of information available.

In December 2003, the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), Advisory Panel (AP), and Council reviewed current biological information about the condition of groundfish stocks in the BSAI. This information was compiled by the Council's Plan Team and is presented in the final 2003 SAFE report for the BSAI groundfish fisheries, dated November 2003. The SAFE report contains a review of the latest scientific analyses and estimates of each species' biomass and other biological parameters, as well as summaries of the available information on the BSAI ecosystem and the economic condition of groundfish fisheries off Alaska. From these data and analyses, the Plan Team estimates an ABC for each species or species category.

In December 2003, the SSC, AP, and Council reviewed the Plan Team's recommendations. Except for Bogoslof pollock, northern rockfish, and the ``other species'' category, the SSC, AP, and Council endorsed the Plan Team's ABC recommendations. For 2004, shortraker and rougheye rockfish will be managed as separate species with OFLs, ABCs and TACs at the BSAI-wide management area. For northern rockfish, the SSC recommended a BSAI-wide ABC instead of separate ABCs for the Bering Sea subarea and the Aleutian Islands subarea based on the limited genetic evidence to support separate stocks by subarea. For Bogoslof pollock, the SSC recommended using a procedure that reduces the ABC proportionately to the ratio of current stock biomass to target stock biomass. For ``other species'', the SSC recommended using tier 6 management for the sharks and octopus species, which calculated lower ABCs, instead of the Plan Team recommended tier 5 management. The Plan Team also recommended separate OFLs and ABCs for the species in the ``other species'' category, however, the current FMP specifies management at the group level. For the 6th year, the SSC recommended a procedure that moves gradually to a higher ABC for ``other species'' over a 10-year period instead of a large increase in one year. For all species, the AP endorsed the ABCs recommended by the SSC, and the Council adopted them.

The final TAC recommendations were based on the ABCs as adjusted for other biological and socio-economic considerations, including maintaining the total TAC within the required optimum yield (OY) range of 1.4 million to 2.0 million mt. The Council adopted the AP's TAC recommendations, except for pollock in the Bering Sea subarea and Aleutian Islands subarea, Pacific cod and the ``other species''category. The Council increased the Bering Sea subarea pollock TAC by 240 mt, the Pacific cod TAC by 500 mt, the ``other species'' TAC by 500 mt and decreased the Aleutian Islands subarea pollock TAC by 1,240 mt. None of the Council's recommended TACs for 2004 exceed the final ABC for any species category. NMFS finds that the recommended OFLs, ABCs, and TACs are consistent with the biological condition of groundfish stocks as described in the 2003 SAFE report that was approved by the Council.

Changes From the Proposed 2004 Harvest Specifications in the BSAI

In October 2003 the Council's recommendations for the proposed 2004 harvest specifications (68 FR 67642, December 3, 2003) were based largely upon information contained in the final 2002 SAFE report for the BSAI groundfish fisheries, dated November 2002. The Council recommended that OFLs and ABCs for stocks in tiers 3 and above be based on biomass projections as set forth in the 2002 SAFE report and estimates of groundfish harvests through the 2003 fishing year. For stocks in tiers 4 and below, for which projections could not be made, the Council recommended that OFL and ABC levels be unchanged from 2003 until the final 2003 SAFE report could be completed. The final 2003 SAFE report (dated November 2003), which was not available when the Council made its recommendations in October 2003, contains the best and most recent scientific information on the condition of the groundfish stocks and was considered in December by the Council in making its recommendations for the final 2004 harvest specifications. Based on the final 2003 SAFE report, the sum of the 2004 recommended final TACs for the BSAI (2,000,000 mt) is greater by 1,557 mt than the sum of the proposed TACs (1,998,443 mt). This represents a .08-percent increase overall. Those fisheries for which the final 2004 TACs are lower than the proposed 2004 TAC are rock sole (decreased to 41,000 mt from 44,000 mt), greenland turbot (decreased to 3,500 mt from 4,000 mt), flathead sole (decreased to 19,000 mt from 20,000 mt), Pacific ocean perch (decreased to 12,580 mt from 13,932 mt), northern rockfish (decreased to 5,000 mt from 6,000 mt), ``other rockfish'' (decreased to 1,094 mt from 1,594 mt), squid (decreased to 1,275 mt from 1,970 mt), and ``other species'' (decreased to 27,205 mt from 32,309 mt). Those species for which the final 2004 TACs are higher than the proposed 2004 TAC are pollock (increased to 1,493,050 from 1,492,810 mt), Pacific cod (increased to 215,500 mt from 207,500 mt), sablefish (increased to 6,000 mt from 5,500 mt), Atka mackerel (increased to 63,000 mt from 59,111 mt), yellowfin sole (increased to 86,075 mt from 83,750 mt). Also, the Zone 1 red king crab limit increased to 197,000 crab from 97,000 crab. As mentioned in the 2004 proposed specifications, NMFS is separating the shortraker and rougheye rockfish group and apportioning the amounts shown in Table 2 from the non-specified reserve to increase several target species.

The 2004 final TAC recommendations for the BSAI are within the OY range established for the BSAI and do not exceed ABCs for any single species/complexes. Compared to the proposed 2004 harvest specifications, the Council's final 2004 TAC recommendations increase fishing opportunities for species for which the Council had sufficient information to raise TAC levels, most notably, pollock, Pacific cod, sablefish, Atka mackerel, and yellowfin sole, while providing greater protection for several species, most notably rockfish, squid and ``other species'', by lowering TAC levels. The changes recommended by the Council were based on the best scientific information available, consistent with National Standard 2 of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and within a reasonable range of variation from the proposed TAC recommendations.

Table 1 lists the final 2004 OFL, ABC, TAC, ITAC and CDQ reserve amounts of groundfish in the BSAI. The apportionment of TAC amounts among fisheries and seasons is discussed below.

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TABLE 1.--2004 Overfishing Level (OFL), Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC), Total Allowable Catch (TAC), Initial TAC (ITAC), and Community Development Quota (CDQ) Reserve Allocation of Groundfish in The BSAI \1\ [Amounts are in metric tons]

CDQ Species

Area

OFL

ABC

TAC ITAC \2\ reserve \3\

Pollock \4\.................. Bering Sea (BS)...... 2,740,000 2,560,000 1,492,000 1,342,800 149,200 Aleutian Islands (AI) 52,600 39,400 1,000 1,000 .......... Bogoslof District.... 39,600 2,570

50

50 .......... Pacific cod.................. BSAI................. 350,000 223,000 215,500 183,175 16,163 Sablefish \5\................ BS................... 4,020 3,000 2,900 2,393

399 AI................... 4,620 3,450 3,100 2,519

523 Atka mackerel................ Total................ 78,500 66,700 63,000 53,550 4,725 Western AI........... .......... 24,360 20,660 17,561 1,550 Central AI........... .......... 31,100 31,100 26,435 2,333 Eastern AI/BS........ .......... 11,240 11,240 9,554

843 Yellowfin sole............... BSAI................. 135,000 114,000 86,075 73,164 6,456 Rock sole.................... BSAI................. 166,000 139,000 41,000 34,850 3,075 Greenland turbot............. Total................ 19,300 4,740 3,500 2,975

263 BS................... .......... 3,162 2,700 2,295

203 AI................... .......... 1,578

800

680

60 Arrowtooth flounder.......... BSAI................. 142,000 115,000 12,000 10,200

900 Flathead sole................ BSAI................. 75,200 61,900 19,000 16,150 1,425 Other flatfish \6\........... BSAI................. 18,100 13,500 3,000 2,550

225 Alaska plaice................ BSAI................. 258,000 203,000 10,000 8,500

750 Pacific ocean perch.......... BSAI................. 15,800 13,300 12,580 10,693

944 BS................... .......... 2,128 1,408 1,197

106 AI Total............. .......... 11,172 11,172 9,496

838 Western AI........... .......... 5,187 5,187 4,409

389 Central AI........... .......... 2,926 2,926 2,487

219 Eastern AI........... .......... 3,059 3,059 2,600

229 Northern rockfish............ BSAI................. 8,140 6,880 5,000 4,250

375 Shortraker rockfish.......... BSAI.................

701

526

526

447

39 Rougheye rockfish............ BSAI.................

259

195

195

166

15 Other rockfish \7\........... BS................... 1,280

960

460

391

35 AI...................

846

634

634

539

48 Squid........................ BSAI................. 2,620 1,970 1,275 1,084

96 Other species \8\............ BSAI................. 81,150 46,810 27,205 23,124 2,040

Total................ ..................... 4,193,736 3,620,535 2,000,000 1,774,570 187,696

\1\ These amounts apply to the entire BSAI management area unless otherwise specified. With the exception of pollock, and for the purpose of these specifications, the Bering Sea subarea includes the Bogoslof District. \2\ Except for pollock and the portion of the sablefish TAC allocated to hook-and-line and pot gear, 15 percent of each TAC is put into a reserve. The ITAC for each species is the remainder of the TAC after the subtraction of these reserves. \3\ Except for pollock, squid, and the hook-and-line or pot gear allocation of sablefish, one half of the amount of the TACs placed in reserve, or 7.5 percent of the TACs, is designated as a CDQ reserve for use by CDQ participants (see Sec. Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(iii) and 679.31). \4\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(1), the annual Bering Sea pollock TAC, after subtraction for the CDQ reserve- -10 percent and the ICA--3.0 percent, is further allocated by sector as directed fishing allowances as follows: inshore--50 percent; catcher/processor--40 percent; and motherships--10 percent. The entire Aleutian Islands and Bogoslof District pollock ITAC is allocated as an incidental catch allowance. \5\ The ITAC for sablefish reflected in Table 1 is for trawl gear only. Regulations at Sec. 679.20(b)(1) do not provide for the establishment of an ITAC for the hook-and-line and pot gear allocation for sablefish. Twenty percent of the sablefish TAC allocated to hook-and-line gear or pot gear and 7.5 percent of the sablefish TAC allocated to trawl gear is reserved for use by CDQ participants (see Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(iii)). \6\ ``Other flatfish'' includes all flatfish species, except for halibut (a prohibited species), flathead sole, Greenland turbot, rock sole, yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder and Alaska plaice. \7\ ``Other rockfish'' includes all Sebastes and Sebastolobus species except for Pacific ocean perch, northern, shortraker, and rougheye rockfish. \8\ ``Other species'' includes sculpins, sharks, skates and octopus. Forage fish, as defined at Sec. 679.2, are not included in the ``other species'' category.

Reserves and the Incidental Catch Allowance (ICA) for Pollock

Regulations at Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(i) require that 15 percent of the TAC for each target species or species group, except for pollock and the hook-and-line and pot gear allocation of sablefish, be placed in a non-specified reserve. Regulations at Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(iii) require that one-half of each TAC amount placed in the non-specified reserve (7.5 percent), with the exception of squid, be allocated to the groundfish CDQ reserve and that 20 percent of the hook-and-line and pot gear allocation of sablefish be allocated to the fixed gear sablefish CDQ reserve. Regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A) also require that 10 percent of the Bering Sea subarea pollock TAC be allocated to the pollock CDQ reserve. The entire Aleutian Islands subarea and Bogoslof District pollock TAC is allocated as an ICA (see Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(1)). With the exception of the hook-and-line and pot gear sablefish CDQ reserve, the regulations do not further apportion the CDQ reserves by gear. Regulations at Sec. 679.21(e)(1)(i) also require that 7.5 percent of each PSC limit, with the exception of herring, be withheld as a PSQ reserve for the CDQ fisheries. Regulations governing the management of the CDQ and PSQ reserves are set forth at Sec. Sec. 679.30 and 679.31.

Under regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(1), NMFS allocates a pollock ICA of 3.0 percent of the Bering Sea subarea pollock TAC after

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subtraction of the 10 percent CDQ reserve. This allowance is based on an examination of the incidental catch of pollock in target fisheries other than pollock from 1998 through 2003. During this 6-year period, the incidental catch of pollock ranged from a low of 3 percent in 2003, to a high of 5 percent in 1999, with a 6-year average of 3.6 percent.

The regulations do not designate the remainder of the non-specified reserve by species or species group, and any amount of the reserve may be apportioned to a target species or to the ``other species'' category during the year, providing that such apportionments do not result in overfishing (see Sec. 679.20(b)(1)(ii)). The Administrator of the Alaska Region for NMFS (Regional Administrator), has determined that the ITACs specified for the species listed in Table 2 need to be supplemented from the non-specified reserve because U.S. fishing vessels have demonstrated the capacity to catch the full TAC allocations. Therefore, in accordance with Sec. 679.20(b)(3), NMFS is apportioning the amounts shown in Table 2 from the non-specified reserve to increase the ITAC to an amount that is equal to TAC minus the CDQ reserve.

Table 2.--Apportionment of Reserves to ITAC Categories [Amounts are in metric tons]

Species--area or subarea

Reserve amount Final ITAC

Atka mackerel--Western Aleutian District....................................

1,550

19,111 Atka mackerel--Central Aleutian District....................................

2,333

28,768 Atka mackerel--Eastern Aleutian District and Bering Sea subarea.............

843

10,397 Other flatfish--BSAI........................................................

225

2,775 Alaska plaice--BSAI.........................................................

750

9,250 Pacific ocean perch--Western Aleutian District..............................

389

4,798 Pacific ocean perch--Central Aleutian District..............................

219

2,706 Pacific ocean perch--Eastern Aleutian District..............................

229

2,829 Pacific cod--BSAI...........................................................

16,163

199,338 Shortraker rockfish-BSAI....................................................

39

486 Rougheye rockfish-BSAI......................................................

15

181 Northern rockfish-BSAI......................................................

375

4,625 Other rockfish--Bering Sea subarea..........................................

35

426

Total...................................................................

23,165

285,690

Allocation of Pollock TAC Under the AFA

Regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A) require that 10 percent of the BSAI pollock TAC be allocated as a directed fishing allowance to the CDQ program. The remainder of the BSAI pollock TAC, after the subtraction of an allowance (3.0 percent) for the incidental catch of pollock by vessels, including CDQ vessels, catching other groundfish species, is allocated as follows: 50 percent to catcher vessels harvesting pollock for processing by AFA inshore processors, 40 percent to catcher/processors and catcher vessels harvesting pollock for processing by catcher/processors, and 10 percent to catcher vessels harvesting pollock for processing by AFA motherships. These amounts are listed in Table 3.

The regulations also contain several specific requirements concerning pollock and pollock allocations under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(4). First, 8.5 percent of the pollock allocated to the catcher/processor sector will be available for harvest by AFA catcher vessels with catcher/processor sector endorsements, unless the Regional Administrator receives a cooperative contract that provides for the distribution of harvest between AFA catcher/processors and AFA catcher vessels in a manner agreed to by all members. Second, AFA catcher/processors not listed in the AFA are limited to harvesting not more than 0.5 percent of the pollock allocated to the catcher/processor sector. Table 3 lists the 2004 allocations of pollock TAC. Other provisions of the AFA, including inshore pollock cooperative allocations and listed catcher/processor and catcher vessel harvesting sideboard limits, are found in Tables 10 through 17.

Table 3 also lists seasonal apportionments of pollock and harvest limits within the Steller Sea Lion Conservation Area (SCA). The harvest within the SCA, as defined at Sec. 679.22(a)(7)(vii), is limited to 28 percent of the annual directed fishing allowance (DFA) until April 1. The remaining 12 percent of the annual DFA allocated to the A season may be taken outside of the SCA before April 1 or inside the SCA after April 1. If the 28 percent of the annual DFA is not taken inside the SCA before April 1, the remainder is available to be taken inside the SCA after April 1. The A season pollock SCA harvest limit will be apportioned to each industry sector in proportion to each sector's allocated percentage of the DFA as set forth in the AFA. These amounts, by sector, are listed in Table 3.

Table 3.--2004 Allocations of the Pollock TAC and Directed Fishing Allowance (DFA) to the Inshore, Catcher/ Processor, Mothership, and CDQ Reserves \1\ [Amounts are in metric tons]

A season \1\

B season\1\

Area and sector

2004 allocations A season DFA

B season DFA (40% of annual SCA harvest (60% of annual DFA)

limit \2\

DFA)

Bering Sea subarea......................

1,492,000 ................ ................ ................

CDQ reserve.........................

149,200

59,680

41,776

89,520

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ICA \1\.............................

43,641 ................ ................ ................

AFA Inshore.........................

649,580

259,832

181,882

389,748

AFA Catcher/Processors \3\..........

519,664

207,865

145,506

311,798 Catch by C/Ps...................

475,492

190,197 ................

285,295 Catch by CVs \3\................

44,171

17,669 ................

26,503 Unlisted C/P Limit \4\......

2,598

1,039 ................

1,559

AFA Motherships.....................

129,916

51,966

36,376

77,950

Excessive Harvesting Limit \5\......

227,353 ................ ................ ................

Excessive Processing Limit \6\......

389,748 ................ ................ ................

Total Bering Sea DFA....................

1,492,000

579,343

405,540

869,016

Aleutian Islands ICA \7\................

1,000 ................ ................ ................ Bogoslof District ICA \7\...............

50 ................ ................ ................

\1\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A), after subtraction for the CDQ reserve--10 percent and the incidental catch amount (ICA)--3.0 percent, the pollock TAC is allocated as a DFA as follows: inshore sector--50 percent, catcher/processor sector--40 percent, and mothership sector--10 percent. The A season, January 20--June 10, is allocated 40 percent of the DFA and the B season, June 10--November 1, is allocated 60 percent of the DFA. \2\ No more than 28 percent of each sector's annual DFA may be taken from the SCA before April 1. The remaining 12 percent of the annual DFA allocated to the A season may be taken outside of SCA before April 1 or inside the SCA after April 1. If 28 percent of the annual DFA is not taken inside the SCA before April 1, the remainder is available to be taken inside the SCA after April 1. \3\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(4), not less than 8.5 percent of the DFA allocated to listed catcher/ processor shall be available for harvest only by eligible catcher vessels delivering to listed catcher/ processors. \4\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(4)(iii), the unlisted AFA catcher/processors are limited to harvesting not more than 0.5 percent of the catcher/processor sector allocation of pollock. \5\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(6), NMFS establishes an excessive harvesting share limit equal to 17.5 percent of the sum of the pollock DFAs. \6\ Under Sec. 679.20(a)(5)(i)(A)(7), NMFS establishes an excessive processing share limit equal to 30.0 percent of the sum of the pollock DFAs. \7\ The Aleutian Islands subarea and the Bogoslof District are closed to directed fishing for pollock. The amounts specified are for ICA only, and are not apportioned by season or sector.

Allocation of the Atka Mackerel TAC

Under Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(i), up to 2 percent of the Eastern Aleutian District and the Bering Sea subarea Atka mackerel ITAC may be allocated to jig gear. The amount of this allocation is determined annually by the Council based on several criteria, including the anticipated harvest capacity of the jig gear fleet. The Council recommended, and NMFS approved, a 1-percent allocation of the Atka mackerel ITAC in the Eastern Aleutian District and the Bering Sea subarea to the jig gear fleet in 2004. Based on an ITAC and a reserve apportionment which together total 10,397 mt, the jig gear allocation is 104 mt.

Regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(ii)(A) apportion the Atka mackerel ITAC into two equal seasonal allowances. After subtraction of the jig gear allocation, the first seasonal allowance is made available for directed fishing from January 1 (January 20 for trawl gear) to April 15 (A season), and the second seasonal allowance is made available from September 1 to November 1 (B season)(Table 4).

Under Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(ii)(C)(1), the Regional Administrator will establish a harvest limit area (HLA) limit of no more than 60 percent of the seasonal TAC for the Western and Central Aleutian Districts. A lottery system is used for the HLA Atka mackerel directed fisheries to reduce the amount of daily catch in the HLA by about half and to disperse the fishery over two districts (see Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(iii)).

Table 4.--2004 Seasonal and Spatial Apportionments, Gear Shares, and CDQ Reserve of the BSAI ATKA Mackerel TAC\1\ [Amounts are in metric tons]

Seasonal allowances \2\

CDQ

CDQ

A season \3\

B season \3\ Subarea and component

TAC reserve reserve ITAC ------------------------------------------- HLA limit

HLA

HLA limit Total limit\4\ Total \4\

Western Aleutian District....................................... 20,660 1,550

930 19,111 9,555 5,733 9,555 5,733 Central Aleutian District....................................... 31,100 2,333 1,400 28,768 14,384 8,630 14,384 8,630 Eastern AI/BS subarea \5\....................................... 11,240

843 ......... 10,397 ......... ......... ......... .........

Jig ( 1%) \6\............................................... ......... ......... .........

104 ......... ......... ......... .........

Other gear (99%)............................................ ......... ......... ......... 10,293 5,147 ......... 5,147

Total................................................... 63,000 4,725 2,329 58,275 29,086 ......... 29,086 .........

\1\ Regulations at Sec. Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(ii) and 679.22(a)(8) establish temporal and spatial limitations for the Atka mackerel fishery. \2\ The seasonal apportionment of Atka mackerel is 50 percent in the A season and 50 percent in the B season. \3\ The A season is January 1 through April 15, however trawl gear is prohibited until January 20. The B season is September 1 through November 1.

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\4\ Harvest Limit Area (HLA) limit refers to the amount of each seasonal allowance that is available for fishing inside the HLA (see Sec. 679.2). In 2004, 60 percent of each seasonal allowance is available for fishing inside the HLA in the Western and Central Aleutian Districts. \5\ Eastern Aleutian District and the Bering Sea subarea. \6\ Regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(8)(i) require that up to 2 percent of the Eastern Aleutian District and the Bering Sea subarea ITAC be allocated to jig gear. The amount of this allocation is 1 percent. The jig gear allocation is not apportioned by season.

Allocation of the Pacific Cod TAC

Under Sec. 679.20(a)(7)(i)(A), 2 percent of the Pacific cod ITAC is allocated to vessels using jig gear, 51 percent to vessels using hook-and-line or pot gear, and 47 percent to vessels using trawl gear. Under regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(7)(i)(B), the portion of the Pacific cod TAC allocated to trawl gear is further allocated 50 percent to catcher vessels and 50 percent to catcher/processors. Under regulations at Sec. 679.20(a)(7)(i)(C)(1), a portion of the Pacific cod allocated to hook-and-line or pot gear is set aside as an ICA of Pacific cod in directed fisheries for groundfish using these gear types. Based on anticipated incidental catch in these fisheries, the Regional Administrator specifies an ICA of 500 mt. The remainder of Pacific cod is further allocated to vessels using hook-and-line or pot gear as the following DFAs: 80 percent to hook-and-line catcher/ processors, 0.3 percent to hook-and-line catcher vessels, 3.3 percent to pot catcher/processors, 15 percent to pot catcher vessels, and 1.4 percent to catcher vessels under 60 feet (18.3 m) length overall (LOA) using hook-and-line or pot gear.

Due to concerns about the potential impact of the Pacific cod fishery on Steller sea lions and their critical habitat, the apportionment of the ITAC disperses the Pacific cod fisheries into two seasonal allowances (see Sec. Sec. 679.20(a)(7)(iii)(A) and 679.23(e)(5)). For pot and most hook-and-line gear, the first seasonal allowance of 60 percent of the ITAC is made available for directed fishing from January 1 to June 10, and the second seasonal allowance of 40 percent of the ITAC is made available from June 10 to December 31. No seasonal harvest constraints are imposed for the Pacific cod fishery by catcher vessels less than 60 feet (18.3 m) LOA using hook-and-line or pot gear. For trawl gear, the first season is January 20 to April 1 and is allocated 60 percent of the ITAC. The second season, April 1 to June 10, and the third season, June 10 to November 1, are each allocated 20 percent of the ITAC. The trawl catcher vessel allocation is further allocated as 70 percent in the first season, 10 percent in the second season and 20 percent in the third season. The trawl catcher/processor allocation is allocated 50 percent in the first season, 30 percent in the second season, and 20 percent in the third season. For jig gear, the first season and third seasons are each allocated 40 percent of the ITAC and the second season is allocated 20 percent of the ITAC. Table 5 lists the 2004 allocations and seasonal apportionments of the Pacific cod ITAC. In accordance with Sec. Sec. 679.20(a)(7)(ii)(D) and 679.20(a)(7)(iii)(B), any unused portion of a seasonal Pacific cod allowance will become available at the beginning of the next seasonal allowance.

Table 5.--2004 Gear Shares and Seasonal Apportionments of the BSAI Pacific Cod TAC [Amounts are in metric tons]

Subtotal

Seasonal apportionment \1\ Share of percentages Share of ---------------------------------------------------- Gear sector

Percent gear sector for gear gear sector total

sectors total

Date

Amount

Total hook-and-line and pot gear allocation of

51 101,662 ............ ........... ...................................... ........... Pacific cod TAC. Incidental catch allowance.................... ........... ........... ............

500 ...................................... ........... Processor and Vessel subtotal................. ........... 101,162 ............ ........... ...................................... ...........

Hook-and-line Catcher/Processors.......... ........... ...........

80

80,930 Jan 1-Jun 10.......................... 48,558 Jun 10-Dec 31......................... 32,372

Hook-and-line Catcher Vessels............. ........... ...........

0.3

303 Jan 1-Jun 10..........................

182 Jun 10-Dec 31.........................

121

Pot Catcher/Processors.................... ........... ...........

3.3

3,338 Jan 1-Jun 10..........................

2,003 Sept 1-Dec 31.........................

1,335

Pot Catcher Vessels....................... ........... ...........

15

15,174 Jan 1-Jun 10..........................

9,105 Sept 1-Dec 31.........................

6,070

Catcher Vessels 99 ft........

n/a

156,242

n/a

Vessels [le] 99 ft...............

n/a

25,558

n/a Total........................

259,714

181,800

389,572

Open access sector...............

118

82\2\

176 Total inshore sector.........

259,832

181,882

389,748

\1\ The Steller sea lion conservation area (SCA) is established at Sec. 679.22(a)(7)(vii). \2\ The SCA limitations for vessels less than or equal to 99 ft LOA that are not participating in a cooperative will be established on an inseason basis in accordance with Sec. 679.22(a)(7)(vii)(C)(2) which specifies that ``the Regional Administrator will prohibit directed fishing for pollock by vessels greater than 99 ft (30.2 m) LOA, catching pollock for processing by the inshore component before reaching the inshore SCA harvest limit before April 1 to accommodate fishing by vessels less than or equal to 99 ft (30.2 m) inside the SCA until April 1.''

Listed AFA Catcher/Processor Sideboard Limits

Under regulations at Sec. 679.64(a), the Regional Administrator restricts the ability of listed AFA catcher/processors to engage in directed fishing for groundfish species other than pollock to protect participants in other groundfish fisheries from adverse effects resulting from the AFA and from fishery cooperatives in the directed pollock fishery. The basis for these sideboard limits is described in detail in the final rule implementing major provisions of the AFA (67 FR 79692, December 30, 2002). The 2004 catcher/processor sideboard limits are set out in Table 12.

All groundfish other than pollock that are harvested by listed AFA catcher/processors, whether as targeted catch or incidental catch, will be deducted from the sideboard limits in Table 12. However, groundfish other than pollock that are delivered to listed catcher/processors by catcher vessels will not be deducted from the 2004 sideboard limits for the listed catcher/processors.

Table 12.--2004 Listed BSAI American Fisheries Act Catcher/Processor Groundfish Sideboard Limits [Amounts are in metric tons]

1995-1997

2004 ITAC 2004 C/P Target species

Area

Ratio of available to sideboard Retained catch Total catch Retained catch/ trawl C/Ps

limit Available TAC

Pacific cod trawl......................... BSAI........................

12,424

48,177

0.258

46,844

12,080 Sablefish trawl........................... BS..........................

8

497

0.016

1,232

20 AI..........................

0

145

0.000

659

0 Atka mackerel............................. Western AI.................. .............. .............. .............. .............. .............. A season \1\..............

n/a

n/a

0.200

9,555

1,911 HLA limit \2\............ .............. .............. .............. ..............

1,147 B season..................

n/a

n/a

0.200

9,555

1,911 HLA limit................ .............. .............. .............. ..............

1,147 Central AI.................. .............. .............. .............. .............. .............. A season \1\..............

n/a

n/a

0.115

28,768

3,308 HLA limit................ .............. .............. .............. ..............

1,985 B season..................

n/a

n/a

0.115

28,768

3,308 HLA limit................ .............. .............. .............. ..............

1,985 Yellowfin sole............................ BSAI........................

100,192

435,788

0.230

73,164

16,821 Rock sole................................. BSAI........................

6,317

169,362

0.037

34,850

1,300 Greenland turbot.......................... BS..........................

121

17,305

0.007

2,295

16 AI..........................

23

4,987

0.005

680

3 Arrowtooth flounder....................... BSAI........................

76

33,987

0.002

10,200

23 Flathead sole............................. BSAI........................

1,925

52,755

0.036

16,150

589 Alaska plaice............................. BSAI........................

3,243

9,438

0.344

9,250

3,178 Other flatfish............................ BSAI........................

3,243

52,298

0.062

2,775

172 Pacific ocean perch....................... BS..........................

12

4,879

0.002

1,197

3 Western AI..................

54

13,598

0.004

4,798

19 Central AI..................

3

5,698

0.001

2,706

1 Eastern AI..................

125

6,179

0.020

2,829

57 Northern rockfish......................... BSAI........................

91

13,040

0.007

4,625

32 Shortraker rockfish....................... BSAI........................

50

2,811

0.018

486

9 Rougheye rockfish......................... BSAI........................

50

2,811

0.018

181

3

[[Page 9253]]

Other rockfish............................ BS..........................

18

621

0.029

426

12 AI..........................

22

806

0.027

539

15 Squid..................................... BSAI........................

73

3,328

0.022

1,084

24 Other species............................. BSAI........................

553

68,672

0.008

23,124

186

\1\ The seasonal apportionment of Atka mackerel in the open access fishery is 50 percent in the A season and 50 percent in the B season. Listed AFA catcher/processors are limited to harvesting no more than zero percent in the Eastern Aleutian District and Bering Sea subarea, 20 percent of the annual available TAC in the Western Aleutian District, and 11.5 percent of the annual available TAC in the Central Aleutian District. \2\ Harvest Limit Area (HLA) limit refers to the amount of each seasonal allowance that is available for fishing inside the HLA (see Sec. 679.2). In 2004, 60 percent of each seasonal allowance is available for fishing inside the HLA in the Western and Central Aleutian Districts.

Regulations at Sec. 679.64(a)(5) establish a formula for PSC sideboard limits for listed AFA catcher/processors. These amounts are equivalent to the percentage of the PSC amounts taken in the groundfish fisheries for groundfish other than pollock by the AFA catcher/ processors listed in subsection 208(e) and section 209 of the AFA from 1995 through 1997 (Table 13). These amounts were used to calculate the relative amount of PSC that was caught by pollock catcher/processors, that were then used to determine the PSC sideboard limits for listed AFA catcher/processors in the 2004 groundfish fisheries for groundfish other than pollock.

PSC that is caught by listed AFA catcher/processors participating in any groundfish fishery for groundfish other than pollock listed in Table 13 would accrue against the 2004 PSC sideboard limits for the listed AFA catcher/processors. Regulations at Sec. 679.21(e)(3)(v) authorize NMFS to close directed fishing for groundfish other than pollock for listed AFA catcher/processors once a 2004 PSC sideboard limit listed in Table 13 is reached.

Crab or halibut PSC that is caught by listed AFA catcher/processors while fishing for pollock will accrue against the bycatch allowances annually specified for either the midwater pollock or the pollock/Atka mackerel/``other species'' fishery categories under regulations at Sec. 679.21(e)(3)(iv).

Table 13.--2004 BSAI American Fisheries Act Listed Catcher/Processor Prohibited Species Sideboard Limits \1\

1995-1997

2004 PSC

2004 C/P PSC species

Ratio of PSC available to sideboard PSC catch Total PSC catch to total trawl vessels limit PSC

Halibut mortality...............

955

11,325

0.084

3,400

286 Red king crab...................

3,098

473,750

0.007

182,225

1,276

  1. opilio................... 2,323,731 15,139,178

    0.153 4,023,750

    615,634

  2. bairdi................... .............. .............. .............. .............. .............. Zone 1..................

    385,978 2,750,000

    0.140

    906,500

    126,910 Zone 2..................

    406,860 8,100,000

    0.050 2,747,250

    137,363

    \1\ Halibut amounts are in metric tons of halibut mortality. Crab amounts are in numbers of animals.

    AFA Catcher Vessel Sideboard Limits

    Under regulations at Sec. 679.64(a), the Regional Administrator restricts the ability of AFA catcher vessels to engage in directed fishing for groundfish species other than pollock to protect participants in other groundfish fisheries from adverse effects resulting from the AFA and from fishery cooperatives in the directed pollock fishery.

    Regulations at Sec. 679.64(b) establish formulas for setting AFA catcher vessel groundfish and PSC sideboard limits for the BSAI. The basis for these sideboard limits is described in detail in the final rule implementing major provisions of the AFA (67 FR 79692, December 30, 2002). The 2003 AFA catcher vessel sideboard limits are shown in Tables 14 and 15.

    All harvests of groundfish sideboard species made by non-exempt AFA catcher vessels, whether as targeted catch or incidental catch, will be deducted from the sideboard limits listed in Table 14.

    Table 14.--2004 BSAI American Fisheries Act Catcher Vessel Sideboard Limits [Amounts are in metric tons]

    Ratio of 1995- Fishery by area/ 1997 AFA CV catch

    2004 catcher Species

    season/processor/ to 1995-1997 TAC 2004 initial TAC vessel sideboard gear

    limits

    Pacific cod

    BSAI................ ................. ................. .................

    [[Page 9254]]

    jig gear..........

    0.0000

    3,987

    0 hook-and-line CV.. ................. ................. ................. Jan 1-Jun 10.....

    0.0006

    182

    0 Jun 10-Dec 31....

    0.0006

    121

    0 Pot gear CV....... ................. ................. ................. Jan 1-Jun 10.....

    0.0006

    9,105

    5 Sept 1-Dec 31....

    0.0006

    6,070

    4 CV 40 percent harvest rate is not unduly aggressive for rockfish managed in the EEZ off Alaska (Dorn 2002, Ianelli and Heifetz 1995).

    Comment 10. The SAFE authors reviewed an uncertainty correction factor for rockfish species that created higher ABCs. This is incongruous with the challenge posed to NMFS to assess whether current harvest strategy is sufficiently conservative.

    Response. The applied uncertainty correction factor explicitly accounts for uncertainty in recruitment and stock size, and was part of a general process of evaluating potentially more conservative harvest rates for rockfish. The applied uncertainty correction factor was identical to that used in the Programmatic Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. Although the control rule for applying the uncertainty correction factor did not result in a reduction of the FFabclevel, it did not cause an increase in the FFabclevel.

    Comment 11. It is unclear why NMFS has not undertaken measures to address high discard rates of northern rockfish in the BSAI.

    Response. From a biological perspective, the overriding concern is the effect of total removals from the fishery on the population, irrespective of the utilization of these removals. High levels of discards would certainly be problematic if they were not accounted for in the catch accounting methodology and led to underestimates of total harvest. However, the fishery observer coverage in the Aleutian Islands is generally thought to be sufficiently comprehensive to produce accurate records of total catch, including discards. Although it may be desirable to reduce northern rockfish bycatch in those fisheries where it occurs, this largely is an economic and utilization issue rather than a biological issue as long as total catch is below allowable harvest levels.

    It should be pointed out that the level of information on BSAI northern rockfish is now substantially more detailed than is typical for a bycatch species with high discard rates, and is thus consistent with the AFS policy recommendation of single-species management targets, including those species taken as bycatch. In contrast to previous years, where only survey

    [[Page 9259]]

    biomass was considered, the northern rockfish assessment now includes information on growth, maturity, longevity, and age and size composition in establishing harvest recommendations. This level of detail was made possible only after reading all the archived northern rockfish otoliths collected in previous surveys. These efforts to improve the assessment data and methodology for northern rockfish were motivated not by their current economic value in the fishery, but rather the recognition of their sensitive life history and the important role they play in the Aleutian Islands ecosystem. As a result of this improvement to the assessment, we have observed the encouraging finding that several strong year classes of have occurred in recent years. For further information on rockfish, please see the following publications.

    Dorn, M.W. 2002. Advice on west coast rockfish harvest rates from Bayesian meta-analysis of stock-recruitment relationships. N. Am. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 22:280-300. Gharrett, A.J. 2003. Population structure of rougheye, shortraker, and northern rockfish based on analysis of mitochondrial DNA variation and microsatellites: completion. Juneau Center of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska-Fairbanks. 136 pp. Ianelli, J.N. and J. Heifetz. 1995. Decision analysis of alternative harvest policies for Gulf of Alaska Pacific ocean perch fishery. Fish. Res. 24:35-63. Matala, A.P., A.K. Gray, J. Heifetz, and A.J. Gharrett. In press. Population structure of Alaskan shortraker rockfish, Sebastes borealis, inferred from microsatellite variation. Env. Biol. Fish. Parker, S.J. and 13 coauthors. 2000. Management of Pacific rockfish. Fisheries 25 (3): 22-30. Walters, C.J. and R. Bonfil. 1999. Multispecies spatial assessment models for the British Columbia groundfish trawl fishery. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 56:601-628.

    Comment 12. The BSAI SAFE report for ``other rockfish'' recommended assigning a separate OFL and ABC to shortspine thornyheads and leaving the remaining 7 rockfish species within the ``other rockfish'' complex but the Plan Team did not accept this recommendation in November because it was not raised in October. NMFS should break shortspine thornyheads out of the ``other rockfish'' category.

    Response. The assessment authors'' recommendation was based on the fact that shortspine thornyheads are the most abundant and valuable species in the complex and inhabit deeper regions of the shelf and slope than the other species. The authors recommend using Tier 5 criteria to assign separate ABCs and OFLs in the EBS and AI for shortspine thornyheads, and using Tier 6 (average catch from 1998-2002) criteria for the remaining species in the ``other rockfish'' complex. The Plan Team believes that this general approach has promise, however, the Plan Team did not endorse this method in 2004 because the Team requested more time to review this proposal and contemplate the implications of separating out shortspine thornyheads. The Plan Team recommends that the authors propose essentially the same method in September 2004 for the 2005 specification process. For 2004, the Plan Team recommended that the method used for 2003 be used. The SSC has determined that a reliable estimate of the natural mortality rate exists for this complex, thereby qualifying ``other rockfish'' for management under Tier 5.

    Comment 13. BSAI squid and other species catch increased in 2002 and NMFS should manage the species in the ``other species'' category as separate shark, skates, squid and octopus.

    Response. The ``other species'' fishery in the BSAI was open for directed fishing until 2003 when it was closed to directed fishing to prevent exceeding the TAC. This should reduce the incentive to target ``other species''. The Plan Team did recommend to separate the ``other species'' category into sharks, skates, sculpin and octopus. However, this change would require an FMP amendment before it could be implemented because ``other species'' is defined in a manner that does not provide for species breakouts unlike other target and non target groundfish complexes. The Council must initiate the development of such an FMP amendment, although the schedule for Council consideration of the draft analysis is uncertain given limited staff resources and competing priorities.

    Comment 14. The Atka mackerel fishery causes disproportionate impacts to coral and sponge reefs throughout the BSAI.

    Response. The Atka mackerel fishery does not cause disproportionate impacts as demonstrated by fishery data. In 2003, the directed Atka mackerel fishery accounted for 54 percent of the total groundfish catch in the Aleutian Islands (Pacific cod accounted for 32 percent, Pacific ocean perch 12 percent, and the rest was taken in miscellaneous fisheries). The commentator highlights the average percentage of bycatch species taken in the Atka mackerel fishery over the last five years. These data are cited from the Ecosystem Effects on BSAI Atka Mackerel section in the stock assessment. For example: ``* * * in the last 5 years (1998-2002), the Atka mackerel fishery has taken on average about 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of the total Aleutian Islands trawl sponge and coral catches.'' Proportionately, the directed Atka mackerel fishery is accounting for bycatch of sponges and coral in line with the percentage of total groundfish catch (in the Aleutians) taken by the Atka mackerel fishery.

    The commentator fails to acknowledge the following sentence in the stock assessment: ``It is unknown if the absolute levels of sponge and coral bycatch in the Atka mackerel fishery are of concern.'' The average percentages of bycatch species taken in the recent Atka mackerel fisheries appear high, but they must be considered in the context that there are only a few major bottom trawl fisheries in the Aleutians, with Atka mackerel being one of the largest. Thus, it is to be expected that these few fisheries would be responsible for the bulk of the bycatch. The question remains whether the absolute levels of bycatch are of concern.

    The stock assessment acknowledges that the Atka mackerel fishery impacts coral and sponge reefs, and also has bycatch of skates and sculpins. However, the Atka mackerel fishery is highly localized and focuses on a few, relatively small areas that provide high catch per unit effort of Atka mackerel.

    Comment 15. The Atka mackerel fishery competes with the endangered Steller sea lions.

    Response. The Atka mackerel fishery is regulated by Steller Sea Lion Protection Measures that include seasonal and spatial allocations of the quota, as well as harvest limits within critical habitat areas defined as Harvest Limit Areas (HLA). In 2003, 48 percent of the 60 percent limit was taken in the Central and Western Aleutian Islands HLA. Two observers are required to be on all Atka mackerel boats fishing in the HLA. The directed Atka mackerel fishery is one of the most highly regulated and monitored fisheries to accommodate Steller sea lion concerns.

    Comment 16. Pacific cod should be managed as the Bering Sea subarea and Aleutian Islands subarea separately instead of the BSAI-wide.

    Response. Currently, Pacific cod is not allocated by subarea. The SSC agreed with the SAFE report author that Pacific cod should be split between BS and AI and requests the assessment authors to evaluate the methods used to

    [[Page 9260]]

    split the ABC and their potential management implications, so that specific recommendations can be made to the Council on this issue in the future. The 2004 ABC was set at 223,000 mt, and if Pacific cod was allocated by subarea, the EBS and AI portions would be 191,000 mt and 32,000 mt, respectively. An AI ABC of 32,000 mt would be higher than the 2002 AI catch of 30,801 mt and similar to the 2004 catch of 31,129 mt and would not be expected to result in significant constraints on the existing fishery in 2004 or to be a conservation issue. The BSAI Pacific cod TAC is the most finely allocated TAC in the Federal fisheries off Alaska with twenty allocations between four gear types, three processing sectors, two vessel sizes and two seasons. Splitting the TAC between the BS and AI subareas under the current allocations will force vessels not currently fishing in the AI to fish there or forgo the AI amount of the TAC allocated to them. In 2003, the Aleutian Islands jig and pot directed Pacific cod catch was less than 1 mt. Trawl Pacific cod catch accounted for 97 percent of the Pacific cod catch in the AI (54 percent CV, 39 percent CP) and would have exceeded the 47 percent of their Aleutian Islands allocation. Also, 93 percent of the trawl catch was taken during the January 1 to April 1, 2003 season, which is limited in 2004 to 60 percent. In 2003, if there were a BS and AI subarea split, the hook-and-line catcher processors and pot catcher vessels would have reached their Bering Sea allocations earlier by at least one week and two weeks, respectively. The Council, the industry, and the public need to develop and review more analyses on how to manage the Pacific cod Aleutian Islands TAC.

    Comment 17. The TAC setting process is lengthy and does not provide for sufficient opportunities to make meaningful public comment.

    Response. Currently, numerous opportunities exist for public input including the September and November Plan Team meetings and the October and December Council meetings, as well as opportunity to submit comments to NMFS on the proposed specifications.

    Nonetheless, NMFS and the Council agree that these opportunities could be enhanced further. In October, the Council approved a new process for establishing harvest specifications in future years under BSAI and GOA FMP Amendments 48/48. Objectives for the revised process include providing enhanced opportunity for informed public comment. The Council's preferred alternative is to establish harvest specifications for 18 months (Year 1 and first half of Year 2) for BSAI and GOA groundfish. The new process would better assure that proposed harvest specifications and corresponding analysis, which are made available for public review and comment, provide the basis from which final harvest specifications are established.

    Small Entity Compliance Guide

    The following information is a plain language guide to assist small entities in complying with this final rule as required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996. This final rule's primary management measures are to announce final 2004 harvest specifications and prohibited species bycatch allowances for the groundfish fishery of the BSAI. This action is necessary to establish harvest limits and associated management measures for groundfish during the 2004 fishing year and to accomplish the goals and objectives of the Fishery Management Plan for the Groundfish Fishery of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Area. This action affects all fishermen who participate in the BSAI fishery. The specific amounts of OFL, ABC, TAC and PSC amounts are provided in tabular form to assist the reader. NMFS will announce closures of directed fishing in the Federal Register and in information bulletins released by the Alaska Region. Affected fishermen should keep themselves informed of such closures.

    Classification

    This action is authorized under 50 CFR 679.20 and is exempt from review under Executive Order 12866.

    A FRFA was prepared for the final 2004 harvest specifications to address the statutory requirements of the Regulatory Flexibility Act of 1980, as amended by the Small Business Regulatory Fairness Act of 1996.

    The proposed rule for the BSAI harvest specifications was published in the Federal Register on December 2, 2003 (68 FR 67642). An Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis (IRFA) was prepared for the proposed rule, and was described in the classifications section of the proposed rule. The IRFA is available on the NMFS Alaska Region Web site at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/specs04/GOA63earirirfa1003.pdf. The public comment period for the BSAI

    specifications rule ended on January 2, 2004. No comments were received on the economic impact of this rule.

    The final 2004 harvest specifications establish harvest limits for the groundfish species and species groups in the BSAI. This action is necessary to allow groundfish fishing in 2004. In all the waters off of Alaska, these harvest specifications may affect from 832 to 838 small catcher vessels, 30 to 33 small catcher/processors, and six small CDQ groups. In the BSAI, 105 small catcher vessels, and 19 small catcher- processors would experience small adverse impacts (estimated to be a fraction of a percent of entity gross revenues) from reductions in Greenland turbot harvests. Six small catcher/processors operating as head-and-gut trawlers would experience reductions in Pacific ocean perch, flathead sole, and rock sole, estimated to be 3 percent to 4 percent of entity gross revenues. Also, 188 small catcher vessels and 43 small catcher-processors would experience small adverse impacts (estimated to be a fraction of a percent of entity gross revenues) from reductions in other species harvests. Six CDQ groups would have small revenue reductions (estimated to be a small fraction of a percent) in fisheries for certain species (although these would be more than offset by revenue increases from other fisheries for CDQ groups).

    The analysis examined four alternatives to the preferred. Alternative 1 would have set TACs in the BSAI to produce fishing mortality rates, F, that are equal to maxFABC, the maximum permissible value under the FMP (2,000,000 mt for OY). While this alternative would have a smaller adverse impact on small entities than the preferred, this alternative was rejected because the associated harvest limits are above biologically acceptable levels. Alternative 3, which sets TACs based on half the maximum levels, and Alterative 4, which sets TACs based on a five year average, were both rejected because they do not use the best and most recent scientific information on status of groundfish stocks, nor take into account socioeconomic benefits to the nation. Alternative 5, the no action alternative, was rejected because it would set TACs in the BSAI equal to zero. Alternatives 3, 4, and 5 would also cause negative impacts to small entities.

    The action does not impose new recordkeeping or reporting requirements on small entities. The analysis did not reveal any Federal rules that duplicate, overlap or conflict with the proposed action.

    Under the provisions of 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(B), an agency can waive the requirement for prior notice if for good cause it finds that such notice is impracticable, unnecessary, or contrary to public interest. Certain fisheries, such as those for Pacific cod, Atka mackerel, and Pacific ocean perch, are intensive

    [[Page 9261]]

    fast-paced fisheries. Others fisheries, such as those for flatfish and rockfish, are critical as directed fisheries and as incidental catch in other fisheries. U.S. fishing vessels have demonstrated the capacity to catch full TAC allocations in all these fisheries. Any delay in allocating full TAC in these fisheries would cause disruption to the industry and potential economic harm through unnecessary discards. For the foregoing reasons and pursuant to 50 CFR 679.20(b)(3) and 5 U.S.C. 553(b)(3B), NMFS makes an apportionment of a portion of the non- specified reserve to fisheries that it has determined appropriate (see Table 2) to allow for the orderly conduct and efficient operation of these fisheries and waives the requirement for prior notice for good cause because it is impracticable and contrary to the public interest.

    Under the provisions of 5 U.S.C. 553(d)(1), an agency can waive a delay in the effective date of a substantive rule if it relieves a restriction. Unless this delay is waived, fisheries that are currently closed (See SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION) because the interim TACs were reached would remain closed until the final specifications became effective. Those closed fisheries are restrictions on the industry that can be relieved by making the final specifications effective on publication. Another relief from a restriction would be the elimination of discards of sablefish caught incidentally to Pacific halibut. If the final specifications are not effective by February 29, 2004, which is the start of the Pacific halibut season as specified by the IPHC, the longline sablefish fishery will not begin concurrently with the Pacific halibut season. This would cause disruption to the fishing industry, as both longline sablefish and Pacific halibut are managed under the same IFQ program, and as stated above, require sablefish that is caught with Pacific halibut to be discarded.

    Under the provisions of 5 U.S.C. 553(d)(3), an agency can waive a delay in the effective date for good cause found and published with the rule. For all other fisheries not currently closed because the interim TACs were reached, the possibility exists for their closures prior to the expiration of a 30-day delayed effectiveness period because their interim TACs or PSC allowances could be reached. Determining which fisheries may close is impossible because these fisheries are affected by several factors that cannot be predicted in advance, including fishing effort, weather, movement of fishery stocks, and market price. Furthermore, the closure of one fishery has a cascading effect on other fisheries by freeing-up fishing vessels, allowing them to move from closed fisheries to open ones, increasing the fishing capacity in those open fisheries and causing them to close at an accelerated pace. The interim specifications currently in effect are not sufficient to allow directed fisheries to continue predictably, resulting in unnecessary closures and disruption within the fishing industry and the potential for regulatory discards. The final specifications establish increased TACs and PSC allowances to provide continued directed fishing for species that would otherwise be prohibited under the interim specifications. These final specifications were developed as quickly as possible, given plan team review in November 2003, Council consideration and recommendations in December 2003, and NOAA Fisheries review and development in January-February 2004.

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 773 et seq., 1801 et seq., and 3631 et seq.; 16 U.S.C. 1540(f); Pub. L. 105-277, Title II of Division C; Pub L. 106-31, Sec. 3027; and Pub L. 106-554, Sec. 209.

    Dated: February 23, 2004. William T. Hogarth, Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, National Marine Fisheries Service.

    [FR Doc. 04-4369 Filed 2-26-04; 8:45 am]

    BILLING CODE 3510-22-P