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New Alaska fisheries observer program takes heat from industry groups

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times

A new federal observer program for groundfish and halibut fisheries, effective Jan. 1, is drawing fire from harvesters, processors and others who contend that the plan is expensive, has big gaps and was completed without sufficient public input.

A final rule on the program is scheduled for early December publication, with implementation in January.

The industry group told Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Sean Parnell that they cannot support this program "that 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.

"We request your assistance in holding the National Marine Fisheries Service accountable for addressing industry concerns prior to implementation of the restructured program or, at minimum, prior to deployment of observers in the vessel selected pool," they said in a letter to Parnell, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.

"To be clear," they said, "the undersigned organizations are willing to pay the observer fee assessment and are committed to providing at-sea data on catch and bycatch. We support phased implementation of the restructured program and are willing to work with NMFS to resolve the issues outlined in the attached document."

Signers of the letter represent the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, Alaska Marine Conservation Council, Alaska Trollers Association, Fishing Vessel Owners Association, Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, Halibut Association of North America, Kachemak Bay Fisheries, Kruzof Fisheries, North Pacific Fishermen's Association, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, seafood Producers Cooperative, Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance, United Cook Inlet Drift Association, and United Fishermen's Marketing Association.

"NMFS is a good organization with lots of talent and brain power," said Jeff Steven, the signer for UFMA. "I know that they can fix this if they commit to investing their attention and resources to do so.

"This is a new, big, complicated but very important program. However it needs some additional thinking, development and a solid plan with respect to the integration of electronic monitoring before it is applied to the small boat fleet."

Throughout the two-year process to restructure the North Pacific Observer Program, the group said, fishermen have consistently advocated for establishing observer coverage levels on a fishery specific basis with emphasis on high impact bycatch fisheries, incorporating deployment strategies that maximize cost effectiveness, and providing small vessels with electronic monitoring as an alternative to human observers concurrent with program implementation.

What they got, the group said, was something different.

This plan, they contend, reduces coverage in high volume fisheries with substantial Chinook and halibut bycatch, doubles the cost of an observer day relative to current levels, assigns over half the observed trips to vessels that account for less than 12 percent of the catch, and places the largest economic burden on the 1,300 small boats that operate out of Alaska's coastal communities.

Owners of small pot and hook-and-line vessels, for one, are concerned that the presence of observers on board will be disruptive to their onboard operational behavior and efficiency. They are also concerned that carrying an observer onboard now requires them to incur costs in addition to the burden of the observer tax to pay for groceries and liability insurance coverage, further reducing their revenues.

The 2013 observer deployment plan was revealed in October after observer contracts had been signed, allowing only minimal opportunity for public comment and only minor revisions, they said.

Since deployment details for small vessels still have not been revealed, that effectively preempts public comment, they said.

The restructure program in general and the 2013 deployment plan in particular fail to meet resource objectives, control costs or minimize impacts to Alaska's small fishing businesses, they contend.

The group noted that at its October meeting the North Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended that NMFS amend the 2013 deployment plan to prioritize coverage in bycatch limited fisheries and to do so by reducing observer assignments in the vessel selected pool. That's the category for catcher vessels fishing with hook-and-line and pot gear that are less than 57.5 feet in length overall.

The NMFS plan says that owners of vessels in this category would receive letters each fall that list their vessels assigned to this pool. Vessel owners or operators in this pool would not be required to log trips into the Observer Declare and Deploy System. However, a subset of vessels, randomly selected by NMFS, would be required to take observers for every groundfish or halibut fishing trip that occurs during a specified two-month period.

According to Martin Loefflad, who heads the observer program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, letters have been sent out to about 500 of the 1,000 vessels in the small boat fleet, explaining the electronic monitoring pilot program set to begin in April and asking them to work with NMFS in developing the program in the future. The letters went to boats between 40 feet and 57.5 feet, with a self-addressed post card for them to return to NMFS, saying if they are willing to work with NMFS in development the program.

NMFS has enough funding for a one-year pilot program for electronic monitoring, and has brought on staff an individual who has worked on electronic technologies in fisheries for years to develop the electronic monitoring program further.

The preceding report was first published by The Cordova Times and is republished here with permission.