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February 8, 2013

Editorial: Time to pull plug on NOAA's joke of observer program

When NOAA first launched its on-board fisheries observer program, it took less than two months for stories about absolutely clueless and unqualified “observers” hired for the job wreaking havoc while going about their contrived duties.

One observer showed up at the pier for a day-boat assignment with eight suitcases, perhaps dreaming of boarding an ocean liner out of Cruiseport, not jumping aboard a 55-foot gillnetter. Another tinkered with, then broke Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando’s essential, on-board communications equipment. And there were endless tales of landlubbing observers spending an entire trip seasick, hardly conducive to collecting any meaningful “observation” data even if the NOAA plants knew where to look.

At least some of those fishermen’s complaints found their way in 2010 to Amy Van Atten, who coordinated NOAA’s regional observer program at the time. And, during an information gathering session that June, Van Atten and other NOAA officials promised to tackle those issues and work toward improvement.

Yet, as noted in Richard Gaines’ Page 1 Wednesday story headlined “A fishermen’s tale,” one of the government hurdles facing Gloucester captain Don Smith on his regulatory-ravaged trip beyond a closed area was the need to deal with a NOAA observer who spent the entire trip seasick, vomiting both inside and outside the boat.

All of this might be at least a little bit funny if these incompetents weren’t being hired and then paid with taxpayers’ money at well over $300 a trip. But it’s a dangerous scam placing unqualified personnel in harm’s way, “observing” workers carrying out the statistically most dangerous jobs in the country. Yet NOAA officials are about to make this ongoing cruel joke worse.

Speaking last week at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council, current NOAA regional administrator John Bullard announced that, because NOAA somehow didn’t include full funding for the observer program, New England’s fishermen will have to pick up the cost themselves. That sounded ridiculous last week. But the now-documented and continued unfit status of these observers — and frankly, those who hire them — have now carried Bullard’s and NOAA’s demand to the level of the absurd.

Enough is enough. This program needs to be scrapped before any “observer” wastes another fisherman’s or taxpayer’s dime.

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