The New England Fishery Management Council will convene in Gloucester next week with an agenda that includes a groundfish monitoring measure that ultimately could determine the financial fate of the Northeast groundfish fleet.

The council is set to meet Monday through Thursday at the Beauport Hotel Gloucester. But for groundfishermen throughout the region, Wednesday is the key day.

The entire afternoon is set aside for discussing groundfish issues — including the current draft of Amendment 23, which when passed by the council and approved by NOAA Fisheries will set industry-funded monitoring coverages for the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery.

"We can't stress enough how important it is for industry, for groundfishermen, to go to the meeting to hear what they might be facing down the road," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. "Whatever is decided, they will have to pay for it eventually."

The goal of the amendment, according to the council, is to improve the accuracy of catch reporting data by considering changes "to the groundfish monitoring and reporting system to ensure it is providing accurate catch information necessary to manage the fishery efficiently.”

In 2019, NOAA Fisheries set a target of providing monitoring coverage — at-sea monitoring and Northeast Fisheries Observer Program monitoring combined — aboard 31% of all commercial sector groundfish trips. That is up from 15% in 2018.

The fishing industry, which is not responsible for funding NEFOP, is responsible for paying the costs of at-sea monitoring. It currently is spared that burden because of $10.3 million appropriated last year by Congress.

But, as Odell pointed out, that appropriation is just a short-term fix.

The draft amendment includes alternatives that call for up to 100% at-sea monitoring coverage for all commercial groundfish trips — a level that will hugely inflate costs to fishermen.

And, that, according to Odell, could spell doom for the industry.

"That would make it very, very difficult, really almost impossible, for these guys to keep going fishing," Odell said.

In July, the Northeast Seafood Coalition sent a letter to federal fisheries regulators that set out the industry's opposition and questioned whether increased levels of monitoring actually translate into more accurate stock assessments.

"Amendment 23 does nothing to advance the utility of ASM data for improving estimates of stock abundance by reducing uncertainties in the underlying biomass, or for addressing the impact of those biomass uncertainties on observer bias," the seafood coalition wrote to NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Mike Pentony and NEFMC Chairman John Quinn.

The letter also included a cost table that, using the same data set utilized by the council's groundfish plan development team, showed that annual costs to the industry, under 100% at-sea monitoring coverage, would rise to $6.23 million — with the 41 most active boats among the 221 active vessels on the hook for more than $5 million a year.

The breakdown for individual boats is about $586 per vessel per day. And that, according to the coalition, is a conservative estimate.

"Based on our estimates, at 100 percent ASM coverage, these federal appropriations could be spent in as little as two years, at which time the industry, which is operating under historically low ACLs (annual catch limits), will be required to cover these expenses," the letter stated. "Obviously that would bankrupt the entire fleet."

The coalition also stated its concern that NOAA will divert significant funds from the congressional appropriation to the effort to develop an electronic monitoring system — despite the fact the funds were specifically designated for fully funding at-sea monitoring.

On top of that, the amendment ultimately could include alternatives for dockside monitoring and electronic monitoring, which also would be funded by the industry.

The council, through its various groundfish committees, has been working on Amendment 23 for more than two years.

The council had hoped to finalize the full range of alternatives in June at its meetings in Portland, Maine. That would have allowed it to complete the draft environmental impact statement necessary to send the amendment out for public comment.

But the council asked for a fuller range of alternatives and now does not expect to approve the environmental impact statement at the Gloucester meeting.

Instead, it will spend much of Wednesday afternoon pouring through the alternatives "to get a detailed understanding of the alternatives and analyses in order to facilitate future decision-making."

"This is a major action and some of the analyses that need to be conducted can't be completed in time for this meeting," said Janice Plante, council spokeswoman. "They'll use this time to get everybody up to speed on the whole range of alternatives."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT

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