By Richard Gaines
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.
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.
"I understand that, with the on-board observers, there is a learning curve," said Orlando, one of the acknowledged leaders of the groundfishing fleet based in Gloucester. But he said the observer on this recent trip was not trained or knowledgeable about the EPIRB system.
"It's very technical; I don't even touch it," said Orlando.
"It's crazy; a kid's who's never been fishing before was checking safety equipment," he added.
He asked Van Atten, who runs the observer program, which was vastly expanded by the requirements of Amendment 16, the catch share regimen that began May 1, for a response.
Van Atten explained that the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the observers to do safety inspections, but she also said they needed to understand the equipment they were inspecting. But she gave no impression she was already aware that the problem is being widely reported.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Orlando said he believes Van Atten had an ethical obligation to put his complaint into a proper context, that the problem was widespread.
"She should have said something," he said. "The thing is ... now, it gets me wondering."
Orlando said, "If (the EPIRB) is put in incorrectly, it could cost us our life."
Later in the meeting, Van Atten had another opening to clarify that the problem was widespread after Phil Powell, who owns and fishes the Gloucester-based Foxy Lady, recounted how an observer had accidentally bumped into and "knocked out" his radar, and "wiped out an electrical panel" during a day of skate fishing the observer spent mostly seasick.
Van Atten expressed sympathy and explained that some observers were given special experience via training cruises, but that was not done with the monitors assigned to go out on 38 percent of the groundfishing trips. But she again gave no indication that the reports and complaints are widespread.
Van Atten did not respond to an e-mail, Tuesday, and Maggie Mooney-Seus, spokeswoman for regional administrator Patricia Kurkul, said Van Atten had been unreachable in a meeting.
The meeting, which drew about a dozen fishermen and another dozen community and political leaders — including Sen. Bruce Tarr, state Rep. Ann Margaret Ferrante, and representatives of U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Congressman John Tierney — was left to think the blunderous experiences of monitors were isolated.
But according to the communications that the federal council published, the harm and dangers of the newly expanded monitoring program have been common.
On May 6, Brazer who represents the Cape Cod hook fishermen — a small but influential group that pioneered the sector system of working in cooperatives — wrote to Van Atten, describing how an observer working for one of the three companies that won federal monitoring contracts had inspected and disabled the EPIRB of the Gulf Venture.
"The captain did not notice this until returning to port and took a picture of the EPIRB (attached)," Brazer wrote.
"This is huge safety hazard and luckily it was not rough enough at sea yesterday to completely dislodge the EPIRB," Brazer wrote to Van Atten. "These situations are a safety hazard to the observer, vessel and crew (not to mention an enormous liability issue for you)."
'Happening a lot'
A day later, Avila wrote to Brazer that "this has happened a lot on one of my boats... the observer dropped the EPIRB and cracked the antenna, put it back in the case, never told the captain...."
"The boat sailed with the observer on board (and) made a second trip without an observer," Avila wrote. "After the second trip, International Marine Products (which Avila represents) conducted a monthly safety drill on my boat and found the EPIRB was not sending a signal. I had to replace the antenna... that boat made two trips without an operational EPIRB."
"I have reported this to both Amy (van Atten) and Mike Tork, (a fisheries biologist at the NOAA Science Center, who works with her on the observer program)," he added. "This has happened on several boats. If I recall, it's been about seven or eight boats, not counting the boat you mentioned."
Problems with the observer program have skyrocketed since the requirements were ratcheted up due to the no-discard requirement for the catch share regulatory system that was rolled out May 1 for the majority of New England's groundfishing boats.
Because fishermen are granted a guaranteed fraction of the total allowable catch in each species and can be expected to fish more strategically rather than in a race to the best and largest take from the common resource, more observers were required under the new Amendment 16 regulatory format.
In New Bedford last Thursday night, the first of the six meetings in a circuit that runs through early July, fishermen complained that observers often are not at the wharf when required, leaving fishermen to delay offloading while the quality of their catch degraded.
Monitors are paid on a sliding scale, but in many cases would be paid more for watching the work than the deckhands that carry it out.
Van Atten said the company that provides the observers could be paid as much as $580-$680 a day. Fishermen said observers told them they were making $300-$350 a day.
Many fishermen debated whether to even attend the meetings. Few did while some others attended only to denounce the high level policy and political decisions behind the new regimen which introduces catch shares.
Gloucester-based fisherman Paul "Sasquatch" Cohan attended briefly, after distributing hand held American flags, but left near the start with the declaration that "there's no good reason to be here."
The third meeting of the six scheduled is to be held from 5 to 8 p.m. next Wednesday at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland, Maine.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.