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Delegation to Commerce: Observer Program Unfair to Alaska Fishermen

Letter Urges Delayed Implementation of Controversial New Monitoring Program

Small vessels in Alaska’s fishing fleet are being subjected to an expensive and poorly devised program for monitoring their take of groundfish and a delay in implementation is needed, according to a letter sent by Alaska’s Congressional delegation today to Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank of the Department of Commerce.

The letter outlined issues with what is known as the observer program. Plans to implement the program were recently published as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Final Rule for an amendment to the Fishery Management Plan for groundfish in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Management Area. A similar amendment applies to Gulf of Alaska groundfish.

While fishermen support the collection of scientific data to better manage the runs, the restructured observer plan drew protests from fishermen from Ketchikan to Kodiak, mainly due to the high cost of the program and the lack of a less expensive option to use video monitoring as an alternative.

It would have required small fishing vessels, those under 57.5 feet, to enter into a pool of vessels for possible selection to host an observer onboard each time they went out to fish during a two-month period. Onboard observers would monitor their catch. The program was designed in response to increasing pressure on groundfish stock, particularly halibut. Large vessels are already required to house observers onboard, but small boats were previously exempt.

Alaska’s small-boat fishermen decried the plan for a number of reasons:

·         Electronic Monitoring (EM) hasn’t been thoroughly studied as an alternative to observers. EM uses live cams to record images of the catch as it’s brought onboard. It is used in British Columbia and elsewhere successfully but wasn’t accepted as an alternative for Alaska.

·         Small boats lack bunk space and other facilities to accommodate observers.

·         Cost estimates for bringing observers along range up to $1,000 per day, and would be borne by the vessel owner. The estimates include increased insurance costs and the displacement and consequent lack of productivity that displacing a crew member with a monitor would entail.

The letter urges faster action toward development of an EM alternative.

“We understand the regulation provides NOAA Fisheries with considerable discretion in the deployment of the observer program and, in response to these concerns, we urge that the agency exercise that flexibility to not deploy observers to the small boat fleet in the vessel selected pool until a viable EM option is available,” the letter states.

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