U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton has expanded efforts to reform at-sea monitoring for groundfishing vessels, corralling a regional and bipartisan group of federal legislators to urge NOAA to accept changes already approved by the New England Fisheries Management Council and supported by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard.

Moulton and 16 other members of Congress — totaling 12 Democrats, four Republicans and one Independent from five New England states — wrote to NOAA Administrator Kathleen D. Sullivan expressing support for the council motions approved in December and again voicing their opposition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s plans to transfer at-sea monitoring (ASM) costs to permit holders sometime early this year.

Those costs are estimated at about $710 per day per vessel with monitor coverage.

“We have requested that your agency utilize authority provided by Congress through the Fiscal Year 2015 Appropriations process to cover such expenses in fishing year 2015 and continue to strongly support the deferment of ASM costs to the industry until these program reforms are fully implemented,” the legislators wrote to Sullivan.

The letter, sent Friday, represents the broadest congressional reach on the issue to date and reflects Moulton’s emergence as a leading congressional ally in the fishing industry’s effort to recast the monitoring program into a more efficient and economical operation.

“We felt we needed to educate a broader group of leaders across the region and here in Washington,” Moulton, the first-term Democrat representing Massachusetts’ Sixth Congressional District that includes Cape Ann, said Friday of the monthlong work that went into drafting the letter and convincing the other legislators to sign on.

The letter commended Bullard for supporting the council’s monitoring reform motions and then laid out in detail the council’s votes on separate elements that combined would “substantially improve the (ASM) program for groundfish sectors beginning in fishing year 2016.”

Those motions, supported by industry stakeholders sought to bring more clarity to the monitoring program by verifying specific areas fished and the catch affected, as well as defining discards by species and gear type.

They still require NOAA’s approval before they can be enacted.

The legislators also issued their support for the council’s vote to use a multi-year approach when determining future coverage rates that could provide more consistent data and cut the current coverage rate — approximately 24 percent of groundfish vessel trips — to about 13 percent.

“NOAA Fisheries’ exclusive use of the most recent year of data to set annual coverage rates has resulted in significant rate variations that do not accurately reflect broader trends in the fishery,” the congressional legislators wrote to Sullivan.

The modifications to the methodology, they wrote, “will enhance the program’s cost efficiency, improve the science that determines ASM coverage rates and provide much needed stability for independent ASM providers and our fishermen.”

The legislators also supported the council vote to exempt extra-large mesh trips in southern New England and inshore Georges Bank from ASM coverage because of low levels of groundfish bycatch.

On Friday, Moulton said he has talked with NOAA officials about at-sea monitoring and other issues that affect the groundfish industry, speaking with Bullard as recently as that morning on several issues, and believes those exchanges are having a positive effect.

“It’s best to work collaboratively with all the constituents in this debate,” Moulton said. “We’ll get much more done with NOAA if we have a working relationship than just continually being at odds.”

The Northeast Seafood Coalition issued a statement in support of the efforts by Moulton and the other legislators to expand the conversation to a regional level.

“NSC truly appreciates the exceptional region-wide support from our congressional representatives for the policy and analytical improvements to the ASM program recently adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council with the support of GARFO Administrator John Bullard,” NSC Executive Director Jackie Odell said in a statement. “We are particularly thankful to Congressman Moulton for his leadership in spearheading this very important letter to NOAA Administrator Sullivan.”

Besides Moulton, the letter was signed by Massachusetts Reps. William R. Keating, Michael E. Capuano and Stephen A. Lynch, as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Sen. Edward Markey did not sign the letter, but issued his own letter to Sullivan that closely mirrored the regional group’s letter.

That group includes members of congressional delegations from New Hampshire (Rep. Frank Guinta and Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly A. Ayotte), Maine (Reps. Bruce Poliquin and Chellie Pingree, as well as Sens. Angus S. King Jr. and Susan M. Collins), Connecticut (Rep. Joe Courtney and Sens. Christopher S. Murphy and Richard Blumenthal) and Rhode Island (Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed).

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

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