Fleet: Monitors final nail in coffin

Joseph Prezioso/File photoNOAA fisheries observer Victoria Oriole, 22, inspects the catch and collects data on weight and numbers of the fish caught by Capt. Al Cottone last year. Groundfishermen from across New England are criticizing an industry monitoring amendment that calls from anywhere between 25% and 100% monitoring.

Regional groundfishermen delivered a unified and dire message to the New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday, testifying that any radical increases to at-sea monitoring coverage will bankrupt the multispecies groundfish fleet beyond repair and without benefit.

The council, meeting for the third day at the Beauport Hotel Gloucester, dedicated much of Wednesday’s agenda to groundfish issues — including the highly contentious Amendment 23, which will set future monitoring coverage levels and — ultimately — define the economic ability of commercial groundfishermen to continue fishing.

The four alternatives included in the draft amendment call for monitoring coverage levels of 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% of all commercial groundfish trips.

Groundfishermen, speaking Wednesday afternoon during the public comment period, drew a straight line from the increased monitoring costs to the economic collapse of the fishery.

“I made 124 trips last year and each day was 10-14 hours,” said Gloucester fisherman Joe Orlando. “At $700 a day for 100% monitoring, that comes to $84,000 for the year. I didn’t even come close to making that. It would completely bankrupt the sector. And there’s only a handful of us left.”

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.”

‘There’s no margin’

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.

Groundfishermen ultimately will be responsible for footing the bill for at-sea monitoring once the federal funds dry up. They are not responsible for funding NEFOP.

Groundfishermen currently are relieved of the burden of paying for at-sea monitoring due to a $10.3 million congressional appropriation last year. But there are questions whether the entire appropriation will be dedicated to fund at-sea monitoring and concerns those funds soon will be exhausted even if they are.

“It’s vital to have a discussion about this,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. “That money is very important to industry and very important to offset the groundfish monitoring costs.”

Frank Mirarchi, the head of Northeast Fishing Sector 12, said increasing monitoring coverage to 50% from current levels would produce daily costs of $350 per vessel for the sector’s five groundfish vessels that fish with 18 permits. Those costs would rise to $525 at 75% coverage.

“We all know there’s no margin in the fishing business,” Mirarchi said. “We will become insolvent almost immediately.”

Mirarchi also zeroed in on the primary industry concern beyond pure costs. The amendment as written, he said, does not provide any benefit to groundfishermen in exchange for higher costs and monitoring coverage levels.

“There needs to be some kind of benefit,” he said. “Better science. Better use of fishery-dependent data.”

Paul Vitale, Gloucester groundfisherman, agreed.

“There is zero cost benefit (to industry) from increasing monitoring to 100%,” Vitale said. “This is the final nail in the coffin for all of us.”

‘The Carlos lens’

Kevin Norton, a Scituate-based groundfisherman, told the council that his vessel supports three families — his and those of his crew. That arrangement, he said, will not survive the highest proposed coverage levels.

“That’s going to cease to exist,” Norton said. “We work hard to make our businesses successful. We’re the ones doing everything right, working with observers, avoiding certain stocks. This doesn’t feel like anything that is going to give us more stock (to fish). And it feels like we just keep getting punished. That’s what this feels like. Punishment.”

Many of the groundfishermen view the push for increased coverage levels as a response to the wanton criminal behavior of convicted fishing mogul Carlos Rafael, who is serving a 46-month sentence in federal prison for lying to fishery managers about the true size and nature of his catch, among other criminal activities.

“Every option is being viewed through the Carlos lens,” said New Hampshire groundfisherman David Goethel.

“We’re being punished for Carlos,” Norton said. “When does that stop?”

Biological costs, too

Goethel also pointed out that there are biological costs in addition to the financial costs that come from increasing coverage levels.

“The current at-sea monitoring program kills everything to measure it,” he said. “Take your options, and whatever percentage option you choose, that percentage of animals, which you release alive on unobserved trips, will be killed.”

The result, he said, creates overfishing where it would not otherwise exist.

“You would be creating overfishing on animals like wolffish, thorny skates, undersized halibut, etc,” he said. “Lots of egg-bearing, over- and undersized lobsters will die awaiting measurement. For what? You need a serious analysis of the biological harm this amendment will cause, as well as what harm the current at-sea monitoring level is creating.” 

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

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