NOAA Fisheries, bowing to escalating dissent by commercial fishermen and political pressure from U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, said Tuesday it will not resume the at-sea monitoring of commercial groundfish vessels until Aug. 1.
"Although we had announced plans to resume observer deployments on July 1, we recognize the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and as such, has required us to re-evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances, NOAA Fisheries said in a statement late Tuesday afternoon. "We intend to begin redeploying observers and at-sea monitors on vessels fishing in Northeast fisheries on August 1."
The at-sea monitoring program was set to resume in Gloucester and the remainder of the Northeast groundfish fishery on Wednesday after being halted for more than three months as part of the NOAA Fisheries's initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
NOAA Fisheries first announced the temporary waiver for at-sea monitoring on March 20 and extended it four time to adhere to recommended social distancing, health guidelines and travel restrictions.
NOAA Fisheries' decision Tuesday came several hours after Moulton, in an online press conference, continued to press the agency to reverse its decision to return at-sea monitors aboard commercial fishing vessels as the pandemic still rages.
Moulton said NOAA Fisheries was "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 the virtual 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 expressed a measure of frustration along with his satisfaction at the decision by NOAA Fisheries to extend the ASM waiver through July 31.
“While I’m a little frustrated it took a full-court press to get one of the nation’s premier scientific agencies to make a data-driven decision, I am glad that NOAA listened,” Moulton said in a statement. “In the end, this is the right call. A few weeks of fish data is not worth more than a single human life. Let’s keep working together to protect our fisheries and the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on healthy oceans.”
Moulton spoke Monday via teleconference with senior officials from NOAA Fisheries and stated the conversation still left him without a single cogent reason for ordering the resumption of at-sea monitoring on July 1 on commercial fishing vessels.
The congressman criticized the agency several times during the Tuesday press session for putting data collection before the lives of fishermen, characterizing it as pitting "data cells versus tombstones."
"No one is going to look back 10 years from now and say, 'Oh my God, this fish species went extinct because we didn't have the data from July of 2020'," Moulton said. "We could well look back a few months from now and say, 'These fishermen, or even these at-sea monitors themselves, would be alive today if we had been prudent about how they're used'."
Moulton said he sought an indefinite hold on reinstating the at-sea monitoring program, but said Tuesday morning he would be satisfied if the waiver was extended another month.
"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 pride myself on making data-based decisions in a political environment where there's not a lot of that going on right now," the congressman said. "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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT