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Feds to monitor 100% of New England commercial fishing to protect at-risk species

A sternman, right, baited a lobster trap while the captain maneuvered the boat while fishing on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020, off South Portland, Maine.Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The federal government has approved a proposal to increase at-sea monitoring of some commercial fishing trips to 100 percent.

At-sea monitors are workers who collect data on board commercial fishing boats to help inform regulations and management of species. The government approved the new, higher percentage of trip cover on Tuesday, said Michael Pentony, a regional administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The rules apply to valuable species that are harvested in the Northeast such as cod, haddock ,and flounder. Pentony said the new rules will replace the old process of calculating a target for the level of monitoring coverage every year.

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The coverage target will instead be 100 percent for four years as long as federal funding can support agency and industry costs, he wrote in a letter to fishery managers.

At-sea monitoring is a controversial subject in commercial fisheries because many fishermen see it as an added cost that complicates fishing trips. The practice is depicted in the 2021 movie “Coda,” which was filmed in Gloucester, Mass.

The new rules are arriving at a time when cod, a key groundfish species, is in peril. US fishermen brought more than 100 million pounds of cod to the docks per year in the early 1980s, but the 2020 catch was less than 2 million pounds. Overfishing and environmental change have led to tighter regulation of cod fishing.

The new rules revise the monitoring program “to improve the accounting and accuracy of collected catch data,” Pentony wrote.

The rules also state that in a given year the at-sea monitoring coverage target could be less than 100 percent, and instead set at the maximum level for which there are sufficient federal funds to cover costs to the agency and industry, Pentony said. The rules also allow some electronic monitoring technologies as an alternative to human workers, he said.

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While many fishermen have bristled at the move toward more monitoring, environmental groups have cheered the changes.

“This is a great day for New England’s historic groundfish fishery, including the chronically overfished Atlantic cod,” said Gib Brogan, a campaign director with Oceana.