NOAA calls for monitors on all groundfish trips

Courtesy photo/Mike Pentony, regional administrator for NOAA's Gloucester-based Greater Atlantic Regional Office.

The draft amendment to set at-sea monitoring coverages aboard all Northeast groundfish vessels has led an adventurous existence in the three years the New England Fishery Management Council has dedicated to developing the contentious measure.

There was last year's partial shutdown of the federal government that delayed the rule-setting process. The council, in March 2018, also chose to tap the brakes on the development of the measure — known as Amendment 23 — because it didn't believe the technical analyses associated with the measure were complete.

As late as last week, fishing stakeholders charged the council was working with insufficient data as it rushed to finally enact the draft management rule setting groundfish monitoring coverages in the Northeast multispecies groundfishery.  

So why should anything become simple now?

The council voted Wednesday to send the monitoring amendment — which includes the approved draft of the measure's environmental impact statement and the council's preferred alternative for coverage levels — out for public comment in the spring. Final action is expected at its June meeting.

To get there, the council overwhelmingly embraced a surprising motion by NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator Mike Pentony to put at-sea monitoring coverage aboard 100% of all groundfish vessel trips.

Does that mean that the council ultimately will vote for 100 percent coverage levels instead of the other three alternatives (25%, 50% and 75%) when the measure comes back from public comment for final action?

Not at all. Several council members made it clear they were voting for the 100% option in the belief it will generate the broadest range of comment from the public hearings that are expected to occur in March or April.

Best remedy?

Nor does it mean that Pentony necessarily believes that 100% coverage is the best remedy for the fishery.

"It may well be where the council ends up, but I really made the motion because I wanted to start the process and start an in-depth discussion," Pentony said via phone Thursday from the final session of the council's three-day meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "I wanted to make it really clear that I wasn't making the motion because it is my or the agency's position as the only acceptable result."

Pentony said he made his motion to help assure the greatest level of transparency in the rule-making process and to give stakeholders the truest sense of the potential impact on the industry and fishery under the maximum coverage levels.

"We want to give the industry and the public the information they need to understand the implications of Amendment 23 and to think about the impact to them, their businesses and the fishery," Pentony said.

Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, said industry stakeholders were not happy to see 100% monitoring coverage as the council's preferred alternative. However, she said, they did appreciate Pentony's willingness to listen to the industry and his leadership in exploring alternatives that might include cost benefits for industry.

"I think his motion will provide more clarity and urgency to the process, so we appreciate his leadership" Odell said. "It also helps give us a sense of which way the council members might be leaning."

She also credited Pentony for including in his motion the elimination of the uncertainty buffer for sector annual catch limits. Pentony said he did so to "provide every advantage possible for sector ACLs to be maximized."

Still, the specter of substantially higher at-sea monitoring coverage from the current 31% — NOAA announced this week that the coverage target level for the 2020 season will be 40% — is a difficult pill to swallow. Especially when the industry is on the hook for the costs.

Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone, who also serves as the city's fisheries director, said the increased coverage levels run counter to the spirit of council measures — such as Amendment 18 — designed to increase diversity in the fleet.

"At this point, the coverage levels don't really matter," Cottone said. "Nobody can afford to pay for observers at $800 a day. This just advances a corporate takeover."

The council also voted to allow sectors to choose electronic monitoring in place of human at-sea monitoring and voted no action on dockside monitoring.

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

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