Managers still fishing for better monitor plan

Joseph Prezioso/File photo/NOAA 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. Fishery managers are still working on an industry amendment that calls from anywhere between 25% and 100% monitoring.

The New England Fishery Management Council continues to fashion the amendment that will set future monitoring coverage levels for the Northeast groundfish fleet and now expects the measure won't go out for public comment or hearings until early spring of 2020.

Janice Plante, spokeswoman for the council, said Thursday that the council's various groundfish committees and panels continue work on the measure, known as Amendment 23, pouring over the full range of alternatives now expected to be presented to the council for a vote at its Jan. 28-30 meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Those alternatives, along with the draft environmental impact statement that includes the analyses for the respective alternatives, then will go out for public comment and hearings in advance of final action by the council next summer.

"Based on the schedule, it now appears that the public hearings and the comment period will occur in March or April of next year," Plante said. "Final action is expected at the June meeting."

Plante said the council is expected to hear a progress report on Amendment 23 at its December meeting in Newport, Rhode Island.

Amendment 23, which has been in the works for more than two years, is designed to improve the various monitoring programs — including at-sea, the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP), dockside and electronic monitoring — to give the council and fishery regulators a better grasp of landings and discards within the fishery.

The current draft of the amendment includes four alternatives that call for groundfish monitoring coverage levels of 25%, 50%, 75% and 100%.

Groundfishermen at the council's September meeting in Gloucester made it clear that any radical increase in monitoring coverage levels — particularly at-sea monitoring, for which fishermen ultimately will foot the bill — could bankrupt the fishery.

Frank Mirarchi, the head of Northeast Fishing Sector XII, told the council at the meeting that increasing monitoring coverage to 50 percent from current levels of 31 percent would produce daily costs of $350 per vessel for the sector's five groundfish vessels that fish with 18 permits.

Those costs, he said, would rise to $525 per vessel per day at 75 percent coverage. He also echoed other stakeholders when he said the draft amendment does not provide any benefit to groundfishermen in exchange for higher monitoring coverages and costs.

"There needs to be some kind of benefit," he told the council. "Better science. Better use of fishery-dependent data."

The council has set a deliberate pace for developing the amendment.

It had hoped to finalize the full range of alternatives at its June 2019 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 used the Gloucester meeting "to get a detailed understanding of the alternatives and analyses in order to facilitate future decision-making."

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

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