NMFMC fails to clarify observer program

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association’s attempt to get the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to clarify the objectives of the restructured observer program and provide a meaningful timeline for implementing the electronic monitoring program were largely unsuccessful at last week’s meeting.

The restructured observer program, which was designed by the council to be administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, has drawn fire from the industry and Alaska’s congressional delegation, as well as a lawsuit, mostly due to the lack of its ability to implement electric monitoring, where a camera would replace an on-board human observer.

Part of the restructuring was intended to broaden observer coverage to encompass more fisheries, specifically the IFQ halibut and sablefish fisheries, as well as fixed gear Pacific cod, all of which began paying into the observer program this year with a 1.25 percent tax on their landings.

Because a majority of those fisheries are done on relatively small boats, under 60 feet, with limited bunk and living space, the original plan was to design and deploy some sort of  electronic monitoring system on the smaller vessels in order to collect the necessary data. 

However, the electronic monitoring system appears to be years off, and in the meantime, the council is expecting those vessels to take live observers, at considerable expense to the program, upwards of $900 per observer day. 

In order to justify such an expense, ALFA is asking the council to define what data is “necessary.”

To that end, ALFA drafted a letter to the council prior to its meeting last week asking them to provide fishery-specific at-sea monitoring objectives and priorities, as well as asking them to come up with alternatives describing how human observers, electronic monitoring, dockside monitoring, logbooks and resource surveys might be integrated to meet those objectives.

In essence, ALFA asked the council to explain what data it is hoping to gather through having a live observer aboard that is not already available or could be made available through regulation.

In the letter, ALFA pointed out that the IFQ fisheries have annual, resource-funded surveys that collect most of the information needed for stock assessments.

This collection program is funded and conducted independent of the observer program partly by a tax on IFQ fishermen. 

If the concern is compliance with regulations such as deployment of seabird avoidance gear, dock-side and at-sea boardings of fishing vessel monitors whether that gear is aboard, and an EM camera would verify deployment.

With regard to marine mammal interaction, there are two species that interact with longline gear: killer and sperm whales, which an electronic monitoring camera would readily identify.

The council did agree to form a work group, but there will not be any industry stakeholders in that group, and it will not be required to get input from the industry.

ALFA director Linda Behnkin described the council’s action, or lack thereof, as disappointing and frustrating.

“We wanted them to take tangible steps to make the (electronic monitoring) pilot program that NMFS is running this year produce better results and be more cost-effective, have really concrete goals and get them the information they want,” she said. “They won’t include us in the process to make sure they’re getting to that point.”

Behnkin said that electronic monitoring programs are working in other places, getting species identification and other necessary information. She said NMFS could be doing that, too, if it integrated some human observers with video monitoring and dockside sampling at a lot less expense and with a lot less disruption to the fleet.

ALFA considers itself to have a fiduciary responsibility to their members to see that the observer program is doing what it is designed to do at the least possible cost, which also is a point in favor of developing an electronic monitoring system as soon as possible.

The council heard testimony from fishermen at the meeting about how they had been selected by NMFS to carry an observer even though they did not have the extra bunk space and someone would have to sleep on the floor, which can hamper access to the engine room.

Behnkin said the council reaffirmed its desire to the agency not to displace crew or quota shareholders aboard small boats in order to carry an observer, but that is only advisory, and in its final rule describing the program, NMFS asserted that the fleet would have to adapt to carrying observers. 

“They haven’t committed to any time frame for implementation (of electronic monitoring), and we question how committed they actually are to ever getting there,” she said. “It’s frustrating.”


The NPFMC is responding to concerns from vessels involved in the Togiak herring fishery who have federal fishery permits, or FFPs, about a new regulation preventing them from traveling through the Round Island and Cape Pierce/Cape Newenham walrus protection areas.

In a letter to the council, the Alaska Independent Tendermen’s Association noted that commercial fishing tenders that have an FFP are in a very difficult position when it comes to the Togiak fishery, because they risk losing their FFP in order to participate in the fishery.

Previous to the new regulation, the vessels could surrender their FFP prior to the fishery, which would allow them to transit the protection zone, and regain it afterward.

However, the new regulation states that they can only be issued one permit every three years.

The protection zone runs out 12 miles from Round Island, with a three-mile area next to the mainland and Hagemiester Island available for vessel travel.

While the actual herring fishing takes place near shore, the tenders often hang offshore more than three miles to avoid conflict with the fishery until they are needed.

Steve MacLean, protected species coordinator for the council, said he was directed at the last meeting to partner with an industry stakeholder group to come up with some alternatives that were not available in the initial rule, and present them at the June council meeting.

While that will not help vessels with FFPs during the fishery this year, MacLean said that the council directed NMFS to make writing tickets for transit violations “an extremely low enforcement priority.”

“That’s as close as they can probably get to saying ‘don’t write anybody tickets,’” he said.

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