After protesting for months about having to pay for the government observers who monitor their catch, the region’s fishermen are catching a break.
The National Marine Fisheries Service on Friday approved a measure that will ease the financial burden on fishermen by reducing the number of times observers must accompany them to sea.
They will now have to take monitors on only 14 percent of their fishing trips, down from nearly a quarter of all trips.
The decision has raised concerns among environmental advocates, who argue that the government should be doing more to monitor the catch of vulnerable species such as Atlantic cod.
“With the experience and data from five years of monitoring, we have determined that the lower coverage levels in this rule will allow us to effectively estimate discards,” said Jennifer Goebel, a spokeswoman for the Fisheries Service in Gloucester.
Fishermen are required to bring in all the fish they catch, and must pay a penalty if they exceed the limits. By discarding the extra fish, they avoid the payment and make it impossible for regulators to keep an accurate count of their catch.
Goebel said the agency will continue to monitor the catch closely and could revise the percent of trips that have to be covered by observers.
The Fisheries Service “also has the authority to raise coverage levels, if the levels that result from the changes are not expected to reliably monitor groundfish catch.”
The move comes after federal regulators last year decided to end the multimillion-dollar subsidy that paid for the observer program, passing the cost to the fishermen.
A federal report found the new costs could cause 59 percent of the boats in the region’s once-mighty groundfishing fleet to lose money. Many of the estimated 200 remaining fishing boats are already struggling amid reduced quotas of cod and other bottom-dwelling fish.
But environmental advocates say the observer program — even in its current form — doesn’t do enough to monitor the catch and blame regulators for waiting too long to protect overfished species.
In 2014, after environmental advocates had raised concerns for years, the Fisheries Service found that the region’s cod population had fallen to as little as 3 percent of what it would take to sustain a healthy population.
In response, regulators imposed a temporary moratorium on commercial fishing for cod and then cut last season’s quota by 75 percent.
Oceana, a Washington-based advocacy group whose lawsuits against the federal government spurred many of the current observer rules, say fishermen in the Northeast have been illicitly discarding millions of dollars a year in fish they shouldn’t be catching because of lax oversight.
“It is unbelievable that the federal government thinks the solution to this problem is gutting oversight measures that ensure fishermen do not catch too many fish to allow the populations to actually rebuild, said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for the group. “This decision is akin to pouring gasoline onto a burning house.”
The share of monitored trips had previously been slated to climb to 41 percent for the upcoming fishing season, Brogan and others noted.
Matt Tinning, senior director of the US oceans program at the Environmental Defense Fund, called the agency’s decision “an abdication of their legal duty … to end overfishing and rebuild overfished stocks.”
“A comprehensive and effective monitoring program is essential to maintain accountability, aid in fish stock recovery, and produce vital information about what fish are being caught and discarded, and where,” he said. “The current program achieves none of these goals.”
But fishing groups applauded the reduced requirements, noting that it costs them hundreds of dollars every time they take an observer to sea. They said the agency’s decision was based on sound science.
“The agency has used better statistical methods every year to create a more most efficient monitoring system,” said Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, which represents the fishing industry. “This year’s regulations are a reflection of an effort to make the system as efficient as possible.”
“This should be something that’s applauded by both the environmental community and the fishing industry,” he added.