GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 17, 2010

NOAA official defends handling of observer issue

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The regional coordinator of the federal "on-board observer program" says she did not dwell on complaints by fishermen about observers improperly touching sensitive electronic equipment essential for search and rescue to avoid slowing down the public meeting.

"One thing I felt was there was a kind of time limit, that people wanted to move on," Amy van Atten said in a telephone interview.

At the second of six scheduled meetings to take feedback and solve problems arising from the start of the new fishing system on May 1, which involves an increased frequency of observers, two fishermen told vivid stories of how observers — ignorant of the ways of the boat and the sea — either broke or improperly touched sensitive communications equipment.

The meeting Monday night was held at the regional offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in Gloucester. It was scheduled for three hours but ended in two.

The Times quoted Wednesday from an exchange of e-mails indicating that such problems were systemic, and that van Atten had been made aware of the repetitive nature of the observers' mistakes in touching — and at times disabling — the EPIRB systems on boats on which they were assigned to watch and count fish.

Van Atten also said she was under the impression that earlier patterns of touching, corrupting and even breaking the required EPIRB radio equipment on commercial fishing boats by on-board observers had been eliminated, and that the anecdotal descriptions of recent incidents voiced by fishermen Monday night were isolated incidents.

Van Atten, who supervises the vastly expanded on-board observer program under Amendment 16, the new catch share based groundfish regimen, told the Times she believes that some captains who complained about observers corrupting or breaking the EPIRB components or antennas had actually done the damage themselves.

"It's an easy thing to say 'The observer did it,'" she said in a telephone interview.

EPIRB stands for Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacons. The systems are for the most part battery operated and are installed on the roof of cabins, and can activated manually or automatically when immersed in saltwater.

The Coast Guard relies on EPIRB signals as a last resort in search and rescue, and as a result the protocols for their maintenance and inspection are considered essential.

Van Atten said the protocol bars observers from touching the EPIRB systems, but requires them to certify that the systems are functioning. To do this without touching, the approach used by NOAA Fisheries involves a check list on a visual inspection card which is good for 90 days and shows when the battery was installed.

She said she had confirmed one of the stories described in an e-mail to her about a captain who reported that an observer had touched and broke the EPIRB on a fishing boat working in the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.

Van Atten told the Times she didn't believe the issue was "currently" a problem.

"I know it was a problem in the past," she said, referring to incidents of a year ago.

In the May 6 e-mail to van Atten, Eric Brazer Jr., of the association wrote that an observer had improperly touched and disabled the EPIRB on the Gulf Venture.

On Monday night, however, Gloucester fishermen Joe Orlando and Phil Powell described how observers had improperly touched equipment on their boats in recent trips. Powell said his observer was seasick and accidentally crashed into and broke cabin radar and radio equipment

Orlando said his observer went up to inspect his EPIRB by hand.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x34764, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.