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Politicians want federal money to pay for fishing observers

Observer trainee Olivia Nary, 21, passed off a spiny dogfish after taking measurements last month.Craig F. Walker / Globe Staff

In an effort to reduce the financial burdens on the region’s struggling fishermen, Governor Charlie Baker and the state’s congressional delegation urged federal officials this week to pay for a controversial program that requires observers to monitor fishermen who catch cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish.

In a letter sent to the secretary of the US Department of Commerce, which oversees the nation’s fishing industry, Baker and the delegation expressed “serious concern” about a decision this year by the National Marine Fisheries Service to require the region’s fishermen to pay for the observer program.

Fishermen insist they can’t afford to pay for the observers, especially after major cuts to their quotas. The Fisheries Service estimates that it costs $710 a day every time an observer accompanies a fisherman to sea, and the agency’s research has suggested that requiring fishermen to cover those costs would cause about 60 percent of their boats to operate at a loss.

“To shift the cost of this ineffective program onto the fishery just as the industry begins to rebuild is not only imprudent, but irresponsible,” Baker and the delegation wrote. “This equates to an unfunded mandate that could lead to the end of the Northeast Groundfish Fishery as we know it.”


Over the past decade, the number of groundfishing boats in the region has plummeted by more than 70 percent. The threat to the estimated 200 boats remaining, more than half of which are based in Massachusetts, became more palpable this month when the Fisheries Service denied an emergency request from the council that oversees New England’s fishing industry to suspend the observer program.

By law, fishermen were supposed to start paying for the program three years ago, but the Fisheries Service has defrayed the costs because of the industry’s financial turmoil, said John Bullard, the agency’s regional administrator.


“We don’t have the money,” he told the Globe earlier this month.

Two weeks ago, Bullard rejected a request by the New England Fishery Management Council, which oversees the region’s fishing industry, to suspend the observer program, saying such a move could “seriously jeopardize the management of the groundfish fishery.”

Observers are required by the law to curb overfishing, conduct accurate assessments of the abundance of certain species, and prevent fishermen from discarding the fish they catch that exceed their quotas. Fishermen are legally bound to bring in everything they catch, even if that exposes them to costs for overfishing that could negate their profits.

Bullard could not be reached for comment on the letter, but Allison Ferreira, a spokeswoman for the agency, said: “We will look at the letter and respond to it accordingly.”

Bullard has suggested that fishermen pool the costs to make the observer program affordable. He has also urged states pay for the observers with their portion of last year’s federal disaster aid for groundfishermen.

In their letter, Baker and the delegation said they were “troubled” by the suggestion that states should use the aid to pay for the observers.

“The congressional intent was for the funding to be used for the future viability of the fishing industry,” they wrote.

They accused the agency of engaging in a “reinterpretation of how to prioritize funding” for the observer program. If states use the disaster aid to pay for the observers, “it would create a short-lived future for many of these fishermen, who will be forced into inactivity or worse,” they wrote.


The letter was also signed by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey and Representatives Richard Neal, Jim McGovern, Michael Capuano, Stephen Lynch, Niki Tsongas, William Keating, Joseph Kennedy III, Katherine Clark, and Seth Moulton.

They also urged federal officials to consider alternatives to observers, such as investing in electronic monitoring, which would equip boats with cameras and sensors that could also monitor the catch.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.