Over the past year, the region’s groundfishermen have argued that the federal government was jeopardizing their livelihoods by forcing them to pay for a controversial program that requires government-trained monitors to observe their catch.
On Thursday, after months of heated debates with fishermen, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that they have found money to cover most of the observer costs for the rest of the fishing year.
NOAA officials said that a contractor they hired to place observers aboard fishing vessels failed to do so for about one-third of the total number of days that they were expected to accompany fishermen to sea. As a result, NOAA has enough money to cover an estimated 85 percent of the rest of the so-called at-sea monitoring program.
“That’s an estimate because it depends on how much fishing occurs over the year,” said Samuel D. Rauch, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs at NOAA Fisheries.
Groups representing groundfishermen, who have been required since March to pay hundreds of dollars every time an observer accompanies them to sea, have argued that the costs were too much to bear and would put many of them out of business. NOAA estimates it costs $710 every time an observer joins them, though most fishermen have negotiated lower fees.
But many groundfishermen, who catch cod, flounder, and other bottom-dwelling fish, have already been suffering from major quota cuts. NOAA last year, for example, cut the region’s cod quota by 75 percent.
“This will definitely lessen the economic burden on small, family-owned fishing businesses, and will allow time to address many logistical issues that have surfaced since industry payments began,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group for groundfishermen in Gloucester.
In April, NOAA eased the burden of the monitoring program on fishermen by reducing the number of days observers must accompany them to sea. They now have to take monitors on only 14 percent of their fishing trips, down from nearly a quarter of all trips.
Environmental advocates have argued for greater coverage of observers, who help curb overfishing, assess the abundance of certain species, and prevent fishermen from discarding fish they catch that exceed their quotas. Fishermen must bring in everything they catch, even if that exposes them to costs for overfishing that could negate their profits.
“This is yet again only a temporary fix that does nothing to address the inadequacy of the monitoring program itself,” said Johanna Thomas, regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program. “By not addressing the need for higher monitoring levels, these short-term actions continue to undermine chances for fish stock recovery, and therefore, for fishermen to be successful.”
Other advocates questioned how the agency’s contractor failed to monitor so many days over the previous fishing season.
Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana, a Washington-based advocacy group, wondered how the contractor could have missed so many trips in the previous year without anyone noticing. “That is a big number to find under a couch cushion,” he said.
He worried that the lack of observed days would make it harder to assess the health of fisheries, such as cod.
“The sophisticated management and assessment tools being used in the region require high-quality information,” he said. “Fueling these processes with inadequate information will only continue the past results of failure and open the fisheries up to manipulation.”
Rauch said there’s regularly some discrepancy between the days at sea they expect to be monitored and those that actually get observed.
“We normally experience some lapse,” he said.
But he added that the agency is looking at what went wrong and is considering replacing the contractor.
“We are exploring our options,” Rauch said.
NOAA’s decision last year to require fishermen to pay for the observers sparked such anger that some filed a federal lawsuit against the agency, arguing it had violated their rights. They cited a report by the agency that estimated 59 percent of the region’s groundfishing fleet would lose money if they had to pay for the observers.
The lawsuit has yet to be resolved.
The agency’s decision also angered politicians across the region, many of whom have pressured NOAA to cover the program’s costs.
In a statement, officials from the Baker administration said they hoped the agency would be able to find money to pay for observers in the coming years.
“The administration remains concerned that similar action will be needed in future fishing years to minimize the economic impact,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “The continuation of any such programs should be funded by the federal government, not the countless individuals, families, and communities who rely upon the future viability of the Commonwealth’s fishing industry.”