The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) budget for at-sea monitoring (ASM) of the Northeast multi-species groundfish fishery ran dry on February 16th, and today the fishing industry is to start picking up the tab for the federally mandated program.
The end of federal funding for at-sea monitors in the New England groundfish fishery does not come as a complete surprise, as there have been several previous deadlines narrowly averted. NOAA most recently announced in early December that funding would continue past a 31 December 2015 deadline.
The cost for mandated monitoring is estimated to be $710 per vessel per monitoring day. In early December, the New England Fishery Management Council reduced the monitoring requirement from 24 percent of all trips to around 13 percent to help reduce costs.
“Despite the importance of the groundfish industry in the Northeast, increasingly stringent government regulations–including now, industry funding–threaten its viability,” states a current lawsuit challenging the legality of mandated at-sea monitoring for the Northeast groundfish fleet. David Goethel, a New Hampshire fisherman, and Northeast Fishing Sector 13 are the named plaintiffs in the case, which was filed against the U.S. Department of Commerce and NOAA in federal court late last year.
The ocean conservation and advocacy organization Oceana filed a lawsuit challenging NOAA’s bycatch rule last summer. Oceana maintains that poor monitoring of the fishery means that fisheries managers do not have a sufficient bycatch reporting system, which has led to overfishing. Referring to the lawsuit, Oceana’s Assistant General Counsel Eric Bilsky stating:
Year after year, the federal government has ignored its duty to establish an adequate bycatch reporting system. Without accurate and precise information on how many fish are being taken out of the water, overfishing in the Northeast will continue.
New England, in particular, has been plagued for decades by lax monitoring and overfishing. The failure to monitor catch and enforce catch limits is in part responsible for the collapse of the New England groundfish fishery, including the historically important Atlantic cod populations in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, which are currently at 3 and 7 percent of their former population levels.
Without accurate bycatch reporting and catch-limit enforcement, overfishing will continue, leading to smaller and smaller catches and lower profits for the fishing industry, and increased stress on critical marine ecosystems. In a vicious circle, this economic harm then creates pressure for the industry to disregard conservation rules that are the only hope for long-term recovery. For example, last month, rather than having industry pay for observer coverage, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to suspend all observer coverage in the groundfish fishery.
The only way to restore Northeast fisheries and fishing industry is to have publicly available accurate and precise information on catch and bycatch and use that information to set and enforce catch limits.
Today’s transfer of monitoring costs from the federal government to the fishing industry comes on the heels of the arrest of Friday’s arrest of New Bedford, Massachusetts fisherman Carlos Rafael and his bookkeeper, who were charged with making false filings to the government in order to subvert fisheries regulations and quotas.
“This arrest and these allegations make it clear that NOAA must start an effective fishery monitoring system, not continue the underfunded program it has had in place for years,” stated Dr. Joshua Wiersma, Environmental Defense Fund Northeast Fisheries Manager. “While the arrest in New Bedford today is an extreme case, it underscores the need for greater accountability of vessels out at sea, and potentially on the dock.”