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June 15, 2010

Safety problems systemic with paid 'observers'

The regional coordinator of the federal "on-board observer program" — whose operation has become a flashpoint complaint of fishermen in problem-solving meetings called by the government — withheld from the industry that observers interfering with life-saving electronics — the EPIRB signals — has become a systemic pattern.

Amy Van Atten had already learned of the frequent bollixing of the lifesaving equipment in reports by fishermen through documented correspondence published on the website of the New England Fishery Management Council.

According to an exchange of e-mails between Eric Brazer Jr., of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, and Rodney Avila, a New Bedford boat owner and council member, at least eight fishermen have watched inexperienced observers fumble or compromise boats' EPIRB equipment.

Avila said he had been documenting the dangerous mistakes of observers for more than two years — and had briefed Van Atten in detail about the ways in which their work was accidentally compromising the safety equipment on fishing boats, and had done so repeatedly.

But while Van Atten had multiple opportunities Monday night to make public that the problem appears to be systemic, she did not do so.

Required equipment

The first came right after Joe Orlando, who owns and operates a Gloucester dragger, told the meeting that an on-board observer, required to count fish and conduct safety inspections, had recently gone onto the roof of the cabin of his boat, the Padre Pio, opened and looked inside the water-activated EPIRB element.

EPIRBs, which operate automatically, are required equipment on all commercial fishing boats and are relied on by fishermen and the Coast Guard as a last hope in search and rescue operations when crews are unable to communicate via radio, e-mail or telephone.

While clearly angry at the violation of the EPIRB on his boat, Orlando issued his report calmly during the two-hour feedback, problem-solving meeting held at the Gloucester regional headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA Fisheries.

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