, Gloucester, MA

June 17, 2010

Editorial: Feds must slam brakes on dangerous NOAA observer program

For all the now-admittedly bad government science that's wreaked havoc on the fishing industry, all the documented criminal law enforcement tactics carried out by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries agents — and even all the signs of special-interest influence on the Obama administration's government fishery policy — NOAA may have hit a new low this week.

For all the damage the agency has already done to fishing families and their businesses, this week's revelations about the ill-conceived and poorly implemented on-board observer program should be the final straw that leads our federal lawmakers and other officials put the clamps on the new Amendment 16 regulatory system once and for all. For it is now no longer a cruel joke — but potentially a life-threatening fishermen's work hazard.

Just a few weeks after the May 1 start of the new commercial fishing year and the new Amendment 16 management system, stories about clueless NOAA observers — brought on board, so to speak, through three provider companies, including one led by longtime NOAA crony Andrew Rosenberg — were already legendary.

Fishermen reported on-board "observers" who spent their monitoring trips seasick, leaning over the side of the boats. Then there was the observer who showed up for a trip with as many as eight suitcases — perhaps thinking she was catching a touring liner out of Cruiseport Gloucester, not climbing aboard a boat from the city's groundfishing fleet.

Those almost — almost — laughable tales took on a much darker tone at NOAA's own fishermen's forum held here Monday night.

When respected local fishermen Joe Orlando and Phil Powell told Amy Van Atten, NOAA's regional observer program coordinator, that "observers" had tinkered with and/or damaged their essential on-board, electronic communication equipment, the observers' status grew from an embarrassing nuisance to truly dangerous safety impediments that simply cannot be allowed to continue.

And NOAA's shame was only compounded when Van Atten — failing at least in her "ethical" duty, as Orlando noted — didn't fess up to the fact that she had been told of several incidents like this before. So much for trust, so much for passing on the shared information.

On that level, the fact that Van Atten knew of the issue and kept quiet about it shows that this latest series of NOAA meetings is nothing more than a new charade.

But there are obviously a few more frightening level to this debacle.

The reported bungling conduct of the observers is inexcusable, and the fact that neither Van Atten nor her NOAA Fisheries supervisors see the observers' incompetence as reason to halt the program before it brings about a tragedy is nothing alarming.

There are a lot of answers owed to our fishermen these days.

Those include explanations of how NOAA will repay those wrongly fined or driven out of business by enforcement penalties the Inspector General's office has documented as excessive; how the science supposedly showing poor health among pollock stocks was so far off that the criminally low allocations may now be hiked by 500 percent or more; and how the special-interest Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association, with close ties to Environmental Defense and the Pew Environment Group, learned of the pending boost and essentially "announce" it in a press release before the feds announced the expected hike themselves.

But federal officials especially need to us all why it's OK to monitor fishermen's catch and on-board actions with "observers" whose bungling is posing new safety concerns for those working on the boats, including the hapless observers themselves.

There are many aspects of the Amendment 16 management system that are not working. But the observer program has even gone beyond that to become a clear and present safety obstacle — imposed, no less, by our own federal government.

It is a program, and Amendment, that must be set aside — right now.