The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Friday announced it was taking the "unprecedented step" of cancelling five major Alaska fisheries research surveys critical to the management of Alaska pollock, Pacific cod and other major groundfish species in the North Pacific.

Citing concerns over the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the agency said it would cancel the Aleutian Islands bottom trawl survey, the eastern Bering Sea bottom trawl survey, the northern Bering Sea bottom trawl survey, the Bering Sea pollock acoustics survey and the Fall Ecosystem survey.

The annual Alaska Longline Survey will take place as planned, the agency said.

The surveys provide critical data in the setting of the annual acceptable biological catch (ABC) limits for Alaska pollock, Pacific cod and Alaska flatfish species in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska, some of the world's most productive fishing areas.

The ABC is in turn a guideline for how the total allowable catch (TAC) is allocated for the species.

The surveys, which are typically conducted starting each the spring by chartered trawl vessels, take sample harvests at hundreds of stations, gathering biomass data, as well as other key indicators of stock and ecosystem health that inform harvests.

Without the annual trawl surveys, researchers and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), which ultimately sets the total allowable catch (TAC) for the species each December, will have incomplete data with which to gauge sustainable harvest levels.

While the Alaska pollock TAC is arguably the most important, given that it makes up the largest portion of the Bering Sea's two million metric-ton harvesting quota, the lack of surveys will likely hit the Pacific cod sector the hardest.

Stocks of Pacific cod have struggled in recent years, so much so that directed fishing in the Gulf of Alaska for Pacific cod was cancelled this year.

As one of the first TACs prioritized by the NPFMC in its quota-setting process, Pacific cod harvest levels can move significantly based on the trawl survey data. This coming year, researchers and the council will be forced to make decisions on harvest limits based on last year's trawl data.

Major seafood companies operating in the Pacific cod sector had hoped this year's data could provide new information that could open up fishing opportunities next year, or give positive signs of a potential recovery.

NOAA said it would provide more information about the survey cancellations at the upcoming NPFMC Scientific and Statistical Committee meeting, which takes place over video conference in early June.

The agency expressed confidence that even without the surveys, the US management system and its extensive store of data and assessments would ensure "limited conservation impact."

"This was a difficult decision for the agency as we strive to meet our core mission responsibilities while balancing the realities and impacts of the current health crisis," NOAA wrote in an announcement.

"Over the past two months, we have been engaged in careful planning and rigorous analysis of various options for conducting surveys this year. After much deliberation, we determined that there is no way to move forward with a survey plan that effectively minimizes risks to staff, crew, and the communities associated with the surveys."

The agency said it would take other measures to mitigate the loss of survey data through the use of unmanned surface vehicles and collection of data via industry partners and other agencies.

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