Responding to industry red flags, the regional fishery management council has signaled a willingness to rethink the scheduled shift in at-sea monitoring costs from the government to the industry for the 2012 fishing year.
Meanwhile, language directing NOAA to continue fully funding at sea monitoring has been written into a Senate appropriations bill.
"The council motion is 100 percent supported by the Northeast Seafood Coalition," Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based coalition, said in an email to the Times. "Unfortunately, it may not be done in time for May 1, 2012 (the start of the 2012 fishing cycle), when industry payment kicks in. This makes what Congress does that much more important.
"The coalition thanks the entire New England delegation, especially Sens. (John) Kerry, (Olympia) Snow and (Susan) Collins," she added, "for working directly with us to make sure language directing their agency to fully fund monitoring in 2012 was included in the Senate fiscal year 2012 bill.
"This is the first critical hurdle in this appropriations process," Odell said, "The current annual catch limits and the financial state of the industry are not at a level to support at sea monitoring in 2012."
Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, will hold a field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee at the State House Monday morning. Snow and Collins are Maine Republicans.
During its extra-long, four-day meeting this week in Danvers, the New England Fishery Management Council approved a motion by member Tom Dempsey to initiate a groundfish amendment to address concerns about at sea monitoring program.
Dempsey is policy director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
NOAA spent $4 million on at-sea monitors in 2010 — the first year of the catch share management system in New England — according to a letter to the council by five industry organizations, including the Northeast Seafood Coalition.
That amount represented 5 percent of ex-vessel (off loaded) value of the catch, wrote Odell and four colleagues from sectors on Cape Cod, Rhode Island and Maine.
"If the industry is required to pay the coast of at sea monitoring," Odell and her colleagues wrote. "it is reasonable to assume that many current active vessels will cease fishing, crew wages will plummet, and the availability of capital to lease (quota) from inactive vessels will substantially decrease, leaving those inactive vessels with reduced or no income from leasing."
According to a presentation to the council Wednesday by Marcus Hartley of Northern Economics, at sea monitors are expected to be placed on 17 percent of fishing trips by sector boats in 2012, and the mean cost of the monitor on each trip is estimated to be $630 — producing costs that range from 9.9 percent of revenues on the smallest inshore day boats to 4.1 percent of offshore trip boats that go to sea for as four to five days at a time.
"The (Senate) committee is concerned that the transition to the (sector) program continues to present substantial financial challenges to the economic sustainability of fishing communities throughout the northeast region," the amendment to the appropriations bill indicates. "The committee directs NMFS to provide adequate funding for at-sea and dockside monitoring..."
The Senate language must survive reconciliation with the House version of the spending bill, Odell said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.