NOAA Fisheries has denied the request by the New England Fishery Management Council in June to use emergency measures to immediately suspend at-sea monitoring for vessels in the Northeast multispecies groundfish fishery.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision, which was not unexpected, signals the federal agency intends to proceed with its plan to shift the costs of at-sea monitoring — currently absorbed by NOAA — onto the groundfish permit holders later this month. It is estimated that will cost each boat an additional $700 to $800 each time a monitor is on board.

In a letter dated July 30, NOAA Regional Administrator John K. Bullard said the council’s request did not meet any of the criteria for emergency action.

“This was a foreseeable problem that does not justify an emergency action,” Bullard wrote to Tom Nies, executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council.

Bullard also discounted the safety element included in the underlying rationale for the council’s request, which asserted that shifting funding responsibility in mid-season could create safety issues by motivating fishermen to condense their fishing into the period when NOAA was paying for monitoring.

“Industry was notified in February 2015 that the transition would occur mid-year,” Bullard wrote. “However, there has not been an observable increase in fishing effort (trips or catch) during this fishing year, when compared to the same period last year.”

Bullard also said the process for implementing emergency measures “limits public participation in rulemaking that Congress intended under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act” and would undermine the requirement to reliably monitor catch limits.

“Catch accountability for the groundfish industry is not optional,” Bullard wrote. “If the sector (at-sea monitoring program) was suspended, it would be necessary to implement a replacement to fill that void and ensure catch accountability.”

Environmental and conservation groups hailed NOAA’s decision to reject the council’s request for the immediate suspension of monitoring.

“Currently only 24 percent of fishing trips in the fishery carry observers on board,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s fisheries campaign manager. “This proposal would have dropped it even further, seriously jeopardizing any chances of recovery for this region.” 

The council’s request to suspend at-sea monitoring was viewed as long shot from the moment it was passed, even by fishing stakeholders who saw it more as a starting point for the general discussion on the effectiveness and efficiency of the current monitoring program than an immediate solution.

The council, at its June meeting, also voted to request NOAA evaluate the at-sea monitoring program (ASM) and to adjust the program through administrative action “to improve the efficiency of the program through application of logical administrative improvements that will reduce the cost of the ASM program without compromising compliance.”

“We are reviewing these motions and will respond in more detail in a future letter,” Bullard wrote.

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

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