(BOSTON – September 27, 2018) A report released this week from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledges that the monitoring program for groundfish vessels in New England is failing to meet minimum coverage requirements. Regional Administrator Mike Pentony wrote in letters sent to sector managers on September 25, 2018 that coverage levels are “substantially below the 15 percent target.” (The referenced letters and a summary table of monitoring levels are available upon request.)
According to the report, on average only about six to seven percent of fishing trips in New England’s groundfish fishery carry human observers to document what fishermen catch and discard at sea. Monitoring is important because it helps fishermen trust the system and provides reliable information about the health of critically important and fragile fish populations, like Atlantic cod.
“The required monitoring levels are already too low, and this new report reveals that even those inadequate levels are not being met. This is a recipe for disaster for the fishery if things don’t change soon,” said Johanna Thomas, New England Director, Environmental Defense Fund.
Thanks to money provided by Congress, the cost of monitoring is covered by federal taxpayers, and funding is not cited in the report as a factor in the failure to reach target monitoring levels. NOAA Fisheries did cite a combination of factors to explain the reasons for the low coverage levels, including a shortage of qualified observers and other logistical challenges in not meeting the required monitoring target. NOAA Fisheries described the issues as “systemic.”
“For a fishery in such dire shape, NOAA has a critical decision to make: fix the monitoring system, or risk the fishery,” said Thomas. “There is no luxury of time when the fishery is essentially unmonitored and there is virtually no reliable information about what is happening at sea.”
The New England Fishery Management Council is considering a proposal that would improve monitoring in the fishery, called Amendment 23. EDF and many other stakeholders hope the amendment will result in a monitoring system based on electronic technologies that will provide the accountability and information the fishery sorely needs to recover. Information from a comprehensive monitoring system is vital to setting the right catch limits and to make sure that those catch limits are not exceeded.
EDF believes that the existing observer program cannot be fixed and decisive leadership by NOAA Fisheries and the New England Fishery Management Council is urgently needed to increase monitoring levels through broadening the adoption of electronic monitoring in the groundfish fishery.
“Technology has enormous potential to deliver more effective monitoring in fisheries,” said Thomas.
Fishermen using cameras to provide at-sea monitoring, including in pilot programs in New England, have reported multiple benefits to their business operations such as greater efficiency and incentives for innovation. Some of these fishermen have articulated their belief that monitoring is important to help close the trust gap between fishermen and managers over the status of fish stocks.
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