Moulton: Human lives more important than fish data

File photo/Congressman Seth Moulton is asking NOAA to postpone plans to resume sending monitors onto fishing vessels, warning that forcing fishing crews to accommodate additional passengers will put lives at risk amid an ongoing pandemic.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton on Tuesday continued to press NOAA Fisheries to reverse its decision to return at-sea monitors aboard commercial fishing vessels as the pandemic still rages, saying the agency "is sailing right into a hurricane" of its own making.

"It's time for NOAA to reverse course today, right now, because the facts are very clear," Moulton said during an online press conference that drew more than 40 media and commercial fishing stakeholders from Gloucester and around the country. "And the storm on the horizon couldn't be more serious. People will die if we as Americans continue putting people in situations where they're very close to others and they don't need to be. And that is what NOAA is proposing to do."

Moulton said his Monday teleconference with senior officials from NOAA Fisheries still left him without a single cogent reason for ordering the resumption of at-sea monitoring on July 1 on commercial fishing vessels.

"This is about protecting the lives of fellow Americans," Moulton said. "I don't want any fish to die an unnecessary death. I don't want any stock to be hurt more than it needs to be hurt as we try to properly manage the fishery. And I've heard NOAA give a lot of reasons as to why their stock data is important. I just think human lives are a bit more important."

Later in the session, Moulton characterized the contentious disconnect between NOAA Fisheries and the commercial fishing industry as "data cells versus tombstones."

"And that should be an easy choice," he said. "Let's make a decision based on the data. Let's make a decision based on the science. That's something NOAA prides itself on."

NOAA Fisheries announced on March 20 that, as part of its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was temporarily waiving the requirement for Northeast commercial fishing vessels to carry at-sea monitors or other fishery observers.

The waiver was extended four time to adhere to recommended social distancing, health guidelines and travel restrictions.

Moulton said he seeks an indefinite hold on reinstating the at-sea monitoring program.

"I obviously think that an indefinite hold is the smartest approach right now," he said. "But even a month would help. It would give us a chance to regroup to better understand the data, to see in fact how cases are increasing across the country and across the world in places that are reopening too quickly."

He said his teleconference Monday with Mike Pentony, the Gloucester-based regional director for the Greater Atlantic Regional Fishery Office, and Jon Hare, the science and research director of NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, left him unconvinced of NOAA's rationale for returning at-sea monitors aboard vessels even as COVID-19 virus infections continue to rise — particularly in states that rushed to reopen.

"I am happy to be convinced," he told reporters and fishing stakeholders Tuesday. "I pride myself on making data-based decisions in a political environment where there's not a lot of that going on right now. Show me some data that says there's a real strong argument that the right thing to do is to put these at-sea monitors back on the boats. I'm willing to be convinced. I never heard that argument.

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

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