[Federal Register Volume 69, Number 43 (Thursday, March 4, 2004)]
[Proposed Rules]
[Pages 10190-10192]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 04-4871]



National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Part 679

[Docket No. 040223064-4064-01; I.D. 020404F]

Fisheries of the Exclusive Economic Zone Off Alaska; Gulf of 
Alaska; Proposed 2004 Harvest Specifications for Skates

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

ACTION: Proposed 2004 harvest specifications for skates and associated 
management measures; request for comments.


SUMMARY: NMFS proposes 2004 harvest specifications for skates and 
associated management measures for the skate fishery of the Gulf of 
Alaska (GOA). This action is necessary to establish harvest limits and 
associated management measures for skates during the 2004 fishing year. 
The intended effect of this action is to conserve and manage the skate 
resources in the GOA in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery 
Conservation and Management Act (Magnuson-Stevens Act).

DATES: Comments must be received by March 19, 2004.

ADDRESSES: Comments must be sent to Sue Salveson, Assistant Regional 
Administrator, Sustainable Fisheries Division, Alaska Region, NMFS, 
P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802, Attn: Lori Durall, or delivered to 
room 401 of the Federal Building, 709 West 9\th\ Street, Juneau, AK. 
Comments also may be sent via facsimile (fax) to 907-586-7557 or by e-
mail. The mailbox address for providing e-mail comments is [email protected]. Include in the subject line of the e-mail comment the 
following document identifier: 2004 Skates TAC Specifications.
    Copies of the final 2003 Stock Assessment and Fishery Evaluation 
(SAFE) report, dated November 2003, are available from the North 
Pacific Fishery Management Council, 605 West 4\th\ Avenue, Suite 306, 
Anchorage, AK 99510 or from its homepage at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc. Copies of the Environmental Assessment/Initial Regulatory 
Flexibility Analysis (EA/IRFA) prepared for this action are available 
from NMFS (see ADDRESSES) and comments must be received by March 19, 

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Tom Pearson, Sustainable Fisheries 
Division, Alaska Region, 907-481-1780 or e-mail at 
[email protected].



    NMFS manages the groundfish fisheries in the exclusive economic 
zone off Alaska under the Fishery Management Plan for Groundfish of the 
GOA (FMP). The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) 
prepared the FMP under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, 16 
U.S.C. 1801, et seq. Regulations governing U.S. fisheries and 
implementing the FMP appear at 50 CFR parts 600 and 679.
    In October 2003, the Council made final recommendations on 
Amendment 63 to the FMP and submitted Amendment 63 for Secretarial 
approval. Amendment 63 would move skates from the ``other species'' 
list to the ``target species'' list in the FMP. By listing skates as a 
target species, a directed fishery for skates in the GOA may be managed 
to reduce the potential of overfishing skates while providing an 
opportunity for achieving a long term sustainable yield from the skate 
resource in the GOA. On December 2, 2003, NMFS published a Notice of 
Availability on Amendment 63, inviting public comments through February 
2, 2004 (68 FR 67390). The Secretary of Commerce approved Amendment 63 
on February 27, 2004.
    The FMP and 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 (OY) range 
of 116,000 to 800,000 metric tons (mt) (Sec.  679.20(a)(1)(ii)). 
Regulations at Sec.  679.20(c)(1) further require NMFS to publish 
annually, and solicit public comment on the proposed annual TACs. The 
proposed specifications set forth in Table 1 satisfies these 
requirements. For 2004, the sum of the proposed TAC amounts for skates 
is 6,993 mt. Pending Secretarial approval of Amendment 63 to the GOA 
FMP, NMFS will publish, under Sec.  679.20(c)(3), the final skate 
specifications for 2004 after considering public comments received 
within the comment period (see DATES).

Proposed Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) and TAC Specifications

    The proposed ABC and TAC levels for each species group are based on 
the best available biological and socioeconomic information, including 
methods used to calculate stock biomass, assumed distribution of stock 
biomass, and estimated incidental catch in other directed groundfish 
fisheries. In December 2003, the Council, its Advisory Panel (AP), and 
its Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), reviewed current 
biological and harvest information about the condition of groundfish 
stocks in the GOA. Most of this information was initially compiled by 
the Council's GOA Plan Team and is presented in the final 2003 Stock 
Assessment and Fishery Evaluation (SAFE) report for the GOA groundfish 
fisheries, dated November 2003. The Plan Team annually produces such a 
document as the first step in the process of specifying TACs. The SAFE 
report contains a review of the latest scientific analyses and 
estimates of each species'

[[Page 10191]]

biomass and other biological parameters, as well as summaries of the 
available information on the GOA ecosystem and the economic condition 
of the groundfish fisheries off Alaska. From these data and analyses, 
the Plan Team estimates an ABC for each species category.
    The Plan Team recommended a single gulfwide overfishing level (OFL) 
for all skate species, a single gulfwide ABC for ``other skates'' 
(Genus Bathyraja), and ABCs for Big and Longnose skates (Raja 
binoculata and Raja rhina) combined in the Western, Central, and 
Eastern Regulatory Areas of the GOA. Additionally, the Plan Team 
recommended that the TAC for Big and Longnose skates in the Central 
Regulatory Area not exceed the calculated OFL for Big skates in that 
area (3,284 mt). The SSC concurred with the Plan Team's recommendation 
for a single gulfwide OFL for all skate species but recommended a 
separate ABC for Big and Longnose skates only in the Central Regulatory 
Area. The SSC believes that this breakout would be a better method to 
address the immediate management concerns in the Central Regulatory 
Area given the current data limitations, which include a lack of skate 
species composition data in both the retained and discarded catch in 
previous years. The AP and Council concurred with the SSC's ABC 
recommendations, which are presented in Table 1. The AP and the Council 
concurred with the Plan Team's TAC recommendation of 3,284 mt for Big 
and Longnose skates combined in the Central Regulatory Area. The AP and 
Council recommended that the TAC for all skates, excluding Big and 
Longnose skates in the Central Regulatory Area, be set at the ABC level 
of 3,709 mt. These amounts are presented in Table 1.

    Table 1.--Proposed 2004 ABCs, TACs, and OFL for Skates in the Western (W), Central (C), Eastern (E), and
                Gulfwide (GW) Regulatory Areas of the Gulf of Alaska. (Values are in metric tons)
               Species/Area                            ABC                          TAC              Overfishing
Big and Longnose skate\1\/W and Eand       3,709......................  3,709......................  ...........
 ``Other'' skates\2\/GW..................
Big and Longnose skate/C.................  4,435......................  3,284......................  ...........
Total/GW.................................  8,144......................  6,993......................       10,859
\1\ Big skate means Raja binoculata and Longnose skate means Raja rhina.
\2\ ``Other'' skates means Bathyraja spp.

    With respect to the Council's recommendations for final 2004 
harvest specifications for groundfish this proposed action would: (1) 
Raise the gulfwide total OFL levels by 10,859 mt, from 649,460 mt to 
660,319 mt, (2) raise the gulfwide total ABC levels by 8,144 mt, from 
498,948 mt to 507,092 mt, (3) raise the ``other species'' TAC by 350 mt 
(5 percent of 6,993 mt), from 12,592 mt to 12,942 mt, (4) raise the 
gulfwide total TAC levels by 7,343 mt (6,993 mt + 350 mt), from 264,433 
mt to 271,776 mt, which is within the required OY range of 116,000 mt 
to 800,000 mt, and (5) raise the non-exempt American Fisheries Act 
(AFA) catcher vessel ``other species'' sideboard limitation gulfwide 
total by 3 mt, from 113 mt to 116 mt.

Additional Management Measures

    With respect to other management measures for groundfish in the 
GOA, NMFS proposes to adopt identical management measures for skates 
that currently apply to ``other species.'' NMFS proposes that the 
maximum retainable amount of incidental catch for ``other species'' 
listed in Table 10 to 50 CFR part 679 would apply to skates as well. 
NMFS will consider comments on the maximum retainable amount of 
incidental catch for ``other species'' received within the comment 
period (see DATES). NMFS proposes that for halibut prohibited species 
management, bycatch mortality in the directed trawl fishery targeting 
skates would accrue to prohibited species catch (PSC) limits 
established for the shallow-water complex and bycatch mortality in the 
directed hook-and-line fishery targeting skates would accrue to the PSC 
limits established for hook-and-line gear other than demersal shelf 
rockfish. NMFS proposes that the halibut discard mortality rates would 
be based on those for ``other species'': 13 percent for hook-and-line 
gear, 61 percent for trawl gear, and 17 percent for pot gear. NMFS 
proposes to base sideboard limitations for non-exempt AFA catcher 
vessels for skates on a gulfwide basis on the ratio of 1995 to 1997 
non-exempt AFA catcher vessel catch of ``other species'' to 1995 to 
1997 ``other species'' TAC which is 0.9 percent. These amounts are 33 
mt (3,709 mt x 0.009) for all skates gulfwide except Big and Longnose 
skates in the Central Regulatory Area and 30 mt (3,284 mt x 0.009) for 
Big and Longnose skates in the Central Regulatory Area. Based on these 
sideboard limitations, NMFS further proposes to close directed fishing 
for all skates gulfwide for the duration of the 2004 fishing year by 
non-exempt AFA catcher vessels.


    The Administrator, Alaska Region, NMFS (Regional Administrator), 
has determined that this proposed specification is necessary for the 
conservation and management of the groundfish fisheries of the Bering 
Sea and Aleutian Islands and GOA. The Regional Administrator also has 
determined that this proposed specification is consistent with the 
Magnuson-Stevens Act and other applicable laws. No relevant Federal 
rules exist that may duplicate, overlap, or conflict with this action.
    This action is authorized under 50 CFR 679.20 and is exempt from 
review under Executive Order 12866.
    NMFS prepared an IRFA for this action in accordance with the 
provisions of the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA) of 1980, as amended 
by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act of 1996 (5 
U.S.C. Section 603(b)). A copy of this analysis is available from the 
Council (see ADDRESSES). This IRFA evaluates the effects of the 
proposed action on regulated small entities. The reasons for the 
action, a statement of the objectives of the action, and the legal 
basis for the proposed rule, are discussed earlier in the preamble.
    The small entities that may be directly regulated by this action 
are those that harvest or may harvest skates in the Central Regulatory 
Area, either in a targeted skate fishery, or incidentally, while 
harvesting other species. Vessels fishing with hook-and-line or trawl 
gear in the GOA may fall into these categories. Pot gear is not 
effective gear for targeting skates because regulations limit the size 
of tunnel openings to no more than 36 inches (91 cm) in circumference.
    In 2001, the universe of potentially directly regulated small 
entities included 665 hook-and-line vessels and 124 trawlers. Of these, 
650 were small

[[Page 10192]]

hook-and-line catcher vessels, 15 were small hook-and-line catcher/
processors, 120 were small trawl catcher vessels, and 4 were small 
trawl catcher/processors. These numbers remain accurate for 2004. These 
counts are believed to overestimate the numbers of small entities 
affected since they only take account of operation revenues from 
groundfish fishing in Alaska, and they do not take account of 
affiliations between fishing operations and associated processors, or 
other associated fishing operations. The directed skate fishery emerged 
in 2003; 77 hook-and-line catcher vessels, 53 trawl catcher-vessels, 13 
hook-and-line catcher/processors, and 10 trawl catcher/processors took 
part in this fishery, producing an estimated ex-vessel gross revenue of 
about $1.7 million. This suggests average revenues for these vessels 
were about $11,000.
    The Council's proposed specifications could adversely affect small 
entities harvesting skates in the fishery that has begun to target Big 
and Longnose skates in the Central Regulatory Area, and could adversely 
affect small entities in the fisheries harvesting skates incidentally 
in the Central Regulatory Area. Also, the measures might adversely 
affect small entities in fisheries harvesting skates incidentally 
outside of the Central Regulatory Area.
    This preferred option would not necessarily eliminate the directed 
skate fishery in the Central Regulatory Area. A directed fishery could 
occur if estimated incidental catch needs were sufficiently smaller 
than the TAC. The Skates SAFE document estimates suggest that this 
would be the case. The Big/Longnose TAC would be 3,284 mt and estimated 
bycatch needs are 2,214 mt. This leaves a residual of 1,070 mt for a 
directed fishery. This, however, is significantly below the 1,700 mt 
estimated to have been caught in the directed fishery in 2003. Thus, 
the Council's preferred option is likely to adversely affect the small 
entities that began to target skates in 2003.
    Skates are also taken incidentally in fisheries for other species. 
Incidental skate catches appear to be relatively important (over 300 mt 
in total during 1997-2002) in the trawl fisheries for arrowtooth 
flounder, flathead sole, Pacific cod, rex sole, rockfish and shallow 
water flats, and in the hook-and-line fisheries for rockfish, 
sablefish, Pacific cod, and halibut. If estimated targeted and 
incidental catches of skates reached TAC levels, skates would become a 
prohibited species and retention of incidental skate catches would be 
prohibited. If estimated catches approach OFL levels, fisheries taking 
skates incidentally may be closed, or restricted in regions with high 
incidental skate catches, in order to protect the skate stocks.
    Although fishing in fisheries targeting other species, but 
harvesting skates incidentally, could be stopped if estimated skate 
catches approach the OFL level, this is an unlikely outcome. Fishery 
managers manage stocks to stay within TACs, and rarely approach OFLs. 
In addition to actually closing a fishery, managers may also have the 
option of restricting its operations in regions where incidental skate 
catches are relatively high. Moreover, the high level of species 
aggregation in this option reduces the likelihood of this. Although 
this outcome appears unlikely, it remains a concern.
    The preferred alternative was compared to the five other options. 
Option 1 would have created a single GOA-wide OFL, ABC, and TAC for all 
skate species. This would have had the smallest impact on small 
entities. However it did not provide protection for individual skate 
species and it did not provide protection against localized depletion 
of skate stocks. Option 2 would have created separate GOA-wide OFLs, 
ABCs, and TACs for Big skates, Longnose skates, and for ``other 
skates.'' By increasing the number of separate OFLs, this may have 
increased the potential for closure of fisheries taking skates 
incidentally. This option would not have provided protection against 
localized depletion of skates. Option 3 would have created a separate 
OFL, ABC and TAC for each of the three species or species groups just 
described, in each of the three main management areas of the GOA. This 
option would have created the greatest potential (of the options 
examined) for a closure of a fishery taking skates incidentally to 
harvests of another species. This option would have provided the 
greatest protection to skates. Option 4 kept the management area OFLs, 
ABCs and TACs for Big skates and Longnose skates, but created a single 
GOA-wide OFL, ABC and TAC for ``other skates''. This reduced the 
potential for closures compared to Option 3, but increased them 
relative to Options 1 and 2. Option 5 created a GOA-wide OFL for all 
species combined. ABCs would be established in each management area in 
the GOA for a Big/Longnose skate grouping. A GOA-wide ABC would be 
established for ``other skates.'' In the Central Regulatory Area a TAC 
would be established for the combined Big/Longnose grouping. This TAC 
would be set conservatively. This reduced the potential for closures 
compared to Option 3 and 4. The preferred option, Option 6, used the 
Central Regulatory Area protections for Big/Longnose skates in Option 5 
in order to protect the species and area that were the focus of the 
directed fishery, and combined them with the provisions in Option 1 
that minimized other burdens on 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.

    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 27, 2004.
Rebecca Lent,
Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, National Marine 
Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 04-4871 Filed 3-3-04; 8:45 am]