Commercial fishermen have long had their gripes about the government-trained observers required by regulators to monitor their catch.
When the pandemic began sweeping across the nation in March, federal officials halted their work, which involves long hours at sea, often in close quarters with fishermen. But with many captains and deckhands still hauling in their prey, observers resumed their duties in early May in nearly every major port around the country — except those in the Northeast.
The region’s mighty fleet has since received seven exemptions from observer requirements, which the federal government subsidizes at an annual cost of more than $50 million to prevent overfishing.
Now, with observers resuming their work this weekend in ports from North Carolina to Maine, fishermen and their representatives are urging the agency to halt the program again, saying it could have an adverse impact on an industry that lands about $2 billion worth of seafood a year.
“Fishermen are feeling like third-class citizens,” said David Goethel, who fishes for cod and other bottom-dwelling fish out of Hampton, N.H. “Government cannot perform essential services, because their people might contact the virus, but we are expected to carry observers …. The hypocrisy here is well beyond anything out of a Kafka novel.”
But environmental advocates say that if fishing continues, so must the vital work of maintaining sustainable fisheries and collecting important data.
“Without proper monitoring tools, New England’s fisheries will go unchecked,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst at Oceana, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group. “Effective fisheries management requires accurate and precise catch information to prevent overfishing, enforce quotas, and rebuild our historic fisheries.”
Officials at the National Marine Fisheries Service say the reasons for the exemptions included the Northeast’s smaller vessels, ports in numerous states, and more congressmen and senators, many of whom have used their political influence to press the agency to keep observers at bay.
Yet the officials acknowledged concerns about the repeated waivers for the Northeast, which accounts for about one-third of the overall value of the nation’s catch.
“We agree that providing seafood to the country remains an essential function, even in these extraordinary times, and adequately monitoring United States fisheries remains an essential part of that process,” said John Ewald, a spokesman for the Fisheries Service.
He said the agency has continued to monitor the fishing industry, catch data, and other relevant information to “ensure that the waivers did not cause significant adverse environmental consequences.”
But without observers, the agency has a limited window into what fishermen catch or discard at sea to avoid exceeding their quotas.
In recent years, the Fisheries Service has promoted electronic monitoring of catches by installing an array of cameras on vessels and reviewing the footage when the boats return to port. But only 22 of about 4,000 permitted vessels in the region use such systems, Ewald said.
In addition, the agency recently announced plans to suspend other efforts to monitor the health of a range of fisheries, including four long-planned surveys off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Those surveys, some of which have been conducted annually for decades, provide scientists with a wide range of vital data about ocean conditions and the size of specific fish populations.
In a statement last month announcing the resumption of the observer program in the Northeast, Chris Oliver, the agency’s assistant administrator, said fishermen in the region could continue to seek exemptions, but only if observers aren’t available or the companies who employ them can’t meet specific safety protocols.
Observers will be required to undergo frequent testing, temperature checks, wear masks, wash their hands frequently, sanitize their work areas on vessels, and limit face-to-face contact with crew, especially in the wheelhouse, among other measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
“In general, observers create no more risk than a crew member,” Oliver wrote. “Our goal is to have observers and monitors following the same safety protocols that fishermen are following.”
One of Oliver’s former employees, John Bullard, who retired two years ago as the agency’s administrator of fisheries from the Mid-Atlantic up through New England, acknowledged the unique challenges in the Northeast, where observers must often travel across state lines to board a vessel.
In some cases, because of different state regulations related to COVID-19, it may be impossible for an observer to make the trip, he noted.
But he said it was important to have observers back at work, citing the groundfish fleet in New England as an example. One fishery in the region, the iconic cod, has experienced a 90 percent decline in its population over the past three decades.
“Groundfish in New England is the worst-managed fishery in the country, and has been forever,” Bullard said. “It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.”
He urged the agency and regional fisheries councils to expedite the use of electronic monitoring.
“They’ve resisted these technologies, which would have gotten them out of this box,” he said.
But those in the fishing industry say regulators’ most pressing concern should be the safety of fishermen, who tend to be older and potentially more vulnerable to the virus.
“The groundfish fishery is an aging fleet, with various health conditions,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group for groundfishermen in Gloucester. “Protecting the life and well-being of fishermen and their families during a global pandemic should be a top priority.”
In a recent letter to federal regulators, Michael Luisi, chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, urged them to scrap plans to resume the program.
Last week, the seven-day average of new cases of Americans testing positive for the virus was 52,000 — substantially higher than in previous months, he noted.
“Given the ongoing community transmission of the virus, and the particularly high risk of transmission in the close quarters onboard a vessel, we believe that deploying observers on fishing vessels at this time poses an unwarranted risk,” Luisi wrote.
Many observers have also raised concerns about the resumption of the program.
Patrick Carroll, who has done the often-dangerous work of observing fishermen for 17 years, hasn’t boarded a vessel since March, when he was offered a job that would have required 12-hour shifts that could have kept him at sea for nearly a month.
Observers are often required to quarantine for two weeks — without pay — before boarding a vessel, he said, and many lack benefits, such as workers’ compensation. He added that some observers have been threatened with being fired if they refuse assignments from the private companies that employ them.
“In most cases, it would be impossible to socially distance effectively on a vessel, due to space restrictions, shared food and hygiene facilities, and ... crew members [not] following anti-infection protocols prior to deployment,” said Carroll, 50, of Tallahassee, Fla.
Fisheries Service officials said they couldn’t comment on whether any fishermen or observers have tested positive for the virus after the observer program resumed elsewhere.
Carroll said it’s unfair that Fisheries Service employees are required to work from home while the agency mandates that observers resume going to sea.
“I feel very strongly that deploying observers at this time is a bad idea, and am amazed at the hypocrisy I am witnessing,” he said.