Changes to observer program criticized

A large cross section of Alaska fishing groups, including the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Alaska Marine Conservation Alliance, the Petersburg Vessel Owner’s Association and the North Pacific Fishermen’s Association have signed on to a letter protesting the implementation of changes to the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program that are set to go into effect in January.

The letter is addressed to Gov. Sean Parnell and Alaska’s congressional delegation, and alleges that changes made to the observer program by the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council “doubles costs, halves observer days, reduces coverage in high volume fisheries with substantial Chinook and halibut bycatch, and fails to provide a workable monitoring system for small vessels.”  

The observer program places trained personnel on groundfish boats to monitor catch data, bycatch, and prohibited species catch and discard rates.

The restructuring, which was finalized in October of 2010, includes having National Marine Fisheries Service, which wrote the restructuring plan and implements the observer program, contract directly with the observer companies to provide part-time observers on previously uncovered sectors such as the halibut longline fleet and groundfish boats under 60 feet in length, and assess a 1.25 percent fee on the ex-vessel value of any landings in fisheries covered under the program to pay for the new observer coverage.

One of the issues that the industry groups are concerned about is the electronic monitoring system the council requested for vessels under 57.5 feet in length where it would not be practical to have an extra person on board. That system will not be ready in time for the Jan. 1 implementation of the new observer program. 

NPFA received a $65,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in May to partner with Saltwater USA to help develop the system, but NPFA board member Malcolm Milne, who essentially spearheaded testing it, said Saltwater USA gave him a laptop computer with a camera in it and asked him to mount it where it would not get wet or jostled too much. 

He suggested that perhaps the seat of his pickup truck parked at the harbor was a good place.

There were problems with the camera, and problems with the GPS system, and after working with it all summer, over the course of seven halibut trips, there still was not a working unit.

Milne said the system that eventually gets used will most likely have a pair of waterproof cameras that may or may not have to be purchased by the boat owner, but it is nowhere near ready, and developing the system should have started when the restructuring plan was finalized, not in the summer of 2012.

The expedited nature of the restructuring plan and the lack of response to industry concerns, especially with regard to the problems created for Alaska’s 1,300 small boats who will be affected by the new rules, and lack of public input is the root of the complaints.

Milne said that the one compromise with regard to the small boat fleet was that NMFS issued a carefully worded statement exempting vessels under 40 feet in length from program participation for the first year, but there is no permanent exemption or plan to provide only electronic monitoring for smaller boats that do not have room to take an observer.

Milne said that some of the initial suggestions NMFS has made for dealing with an extra person on board a small boat show a blatant ignorance for the the way a small boat operates, such as “hot-bunking” the extra person, where when one person leaves their bunk to go work on deck, the observer takes it for awhile, meaning there would not be much observing going on, or else leaving an “extra crewman” behind.

“How many boats do you know that take ‘extra’ crewmen?” Milne asked.

He said NMFS has since made it clear it does not want to displace crewmen for observers, but he also said that they do not count an IFQ holder who is required to be aboard while his pounds are being caught as a crew member.

Milne also took issue with NMFS’s assertion that the new program would expand observer coverage on trawlers and boats with a higher level of prohibited species catches.

“Eventually that’s kind of the idea, but it doesn’t do that to start off,” he said. “Their justification is that they are required to have a scientifically defensible deployment plan, so in their mind they have to spread it out completely evenly over a period of time,  which they don’t specify, and then from that they have to get their statistics and then target their coverage based on their baseline of where it’s needed.

“In the meantime, there could be a lot of harm to the stocks,” he continued. “If (prohibited species) catches are allowed to go on way past their quota, there could be a lot of damage.”

He said that some of the trawlers have brought up the opposite issue: If NMFS is relying on observer data from only a handful of boats, and one or two of those boats ends up in a prohibited species hot spot, that data gets extrapolated throughout the fleet and a fishery may be shut down prematurely due to bycatch.

The industry letter states that half the observer coverage will be concentrated on a fleet that catches 12 percent of the product.

The letter continues that the program “places the largest economic burden on the 1,300 small boats that operate out of Alaska’s coastal communities. NMFS has provided insufficient opportunity for public comment on the 2013 deployment plan, no specificity and therefore no opportunity for comment on deployment logistics for small boats, and has consistently ignored concerns expressed by fishermen most affected by the program.”

The letter asks the governor and congressional delegation for help in holding NMFS accountable for addressing industry concerns prior to implementation of the restructured program, or, at the very least, holding off implementation of the parts of the program that affect small boats.

NMFS representatives will be coming to Homer December 12 to explain the new rules, but it will not be a public comment session. That meeting will take place at 1 p.m. at the Harbor Room at Land’s End Resort.

For more information on the program, visit www.alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/observers/.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.


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