In order to restore New England’s groundfish populations to healthy levels, we need enough monitoring to enforce scientifically based catch limits. Impartial observers on fishing vessels are crucial in getting accurate data on how many fish are being taken out of the ocean, which helps to make sure fishing stays within limits so populations can rebuild in the future.
-Gib Brogan, Northeast Representative for Oceana
On 28 May, Oceana, the self-proclaimed largest international organization focused solely on ocean conservation, sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for “its failure to require adequate observer coverage for the New England groundfish fishery for cod, haddock and flounder.” Independent observers are required under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary piece of legislation governing marine fisheries management in the United States. Observers are frequently a point of contention between federal regulators required to monitor the fishery and the commercial fishers who worry they may be expected to absorb the cost of observers in the future. Currently the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pays for observers to the the tune of an estimated $6.5 million this year.
According to some closest to the situation, part of the problem has to do with the management system in place and the legal requirements under Magnuson-Stevens. The New England groundfish fishery was divided into sectors as part of a new “catch-shares” management strategy implemented in 2010. At that time, 17 sectors–essentially community-based, fisher-run collectives or co-ops–were established, and each sector received a share of the total allowable catch (TAC). “In order for the sector program to work properly,” Oceana says, “more observers are needed on fishing boats to ensure each sector stops fishing when the number of fish landed and discarded reaches its assigned quota.” Less than a quarter of the fishing boats in the groundfishing fleet currently have observers, and this is down from nearly 40 percent when the sector system started.
An Oceana press release states that “the federal government set monitoring at extraordinary low levels, using an unlawful interpretation of the legal minimum requirement for observers.” According to the terms of a January settlement agreement with Oceana, the federal government was required to publish an analysis of the groundfish fishery’s monitoring needs for the upcoming fishing year, however Oceana’s lawsuit alleges that NMFS did not adequately consider what level of observer coverage was needed.
“By filing this lawsuit, we hope to compel NMFS to take seriously its task of determining the level of observer coverage needed and to get those observers out on the water, instead of allowing overfishing to further harm New England’s fisheries,” said Oceana assistant general counsel Eric Bilsky. “Without observers reviewing fishing activity, the reduced quotas will be impossible to monitor and enforce, threatening the fishery’s overall future.” It is NOAA policy not to comment on pending litigation.
Even with NOAA picking up the bill for putting observers on commercial fishing boats, commercial fishers argue there are other costs to having observers aboard working their boats. Frequently observers are not accustomed to being at sea and have little knowledge of boats. Fishers often complain that observers at best are in the way and at worst can be a safety concern. Increased incidents between fishers and observers, mostly cases of “verbal abuse,” are on the rise and likely the result of the pressures placed on the New England groundfishing fleet this year with severe reductions in catch limits.
‘I think you can look at what’s happened in New England—with some of the really serious fisheries issues—some of the folks are, you know, quite frustrated, and sometimes that frustration gets taken out on whatever the nearest person is.
-Rip Cunningham, chair of the New England Fishery Management Council