In a victory for groundfishermen, NOAA will significantly reduce at-sea monitoring coverage for Northeast multispecies groundfish vessels in the season that begins Sunday.

NOAA, according to the final rule filed Friday in the Federal Register, will cut monitoring to 14 percent of all vessel trips in 2016, down from about 24 percent in 2015.

The reduction was welcomed by fishermen, particularly following recent federal policy changes leaving permit holders on the hook for the cost of at-sea monitoring. It was a disappointment for conservationists and environmental groups, who were seeking more coverage, not less.

The new rule, known as Framework 55, is expected to be formally published Monday, but will go into effect at the start of the 2016 fishing season on May 1.

"Fishermen appreciate the changes and the evolution of the at-sea monitoring program," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which strongly advocated for the adjustments to the monitoring program. "We think what they've done is prudent and responsible."

While fishermen and fishing advocates hailed the adjustments to monitoring coverage, conservationists and environmental groups railed against the changes.

The Environmental Defense Fund said in a statement that NOAA's approval of the new final rule represents "an abdication of their legal duty under the Magnuson-Stevens Act" and charged that the approval of Framework 55 "is a stain on their legacy."

Oceana characterized the final rule as "akin to pouring gasoline onto a burning house" said it only will further weaken the fishery's chances of recovery.

"New England fishermen have been struggling for decades due to poor management and overfishing," Oceana's Gib Brogan said in a prepared statement. "It is unbelievable that the federal government thinks the solution to this problem is gutting oversight measures that ensure fishermen do not catch too many fish to allow populations to actually rebuild."

NOAA, however, described the changes to at-sea monitoring coverage as "reasonable, narrowly focused adjustments" to the method used to calculate the coverage level for 2016 and subsequent fishing years. It also said the lower coverage rate for 2016 is not necessarily a precursor for lower coverage rates in the future.

Fishing advocates and the New England Fishery Management Council, which first approved the modifications, argued the adjustments still satisfy monitoring requirements for discards while making the program more cost-effective and consistent.

The federal rulemakers also said that expanding the data collection to include five years of monitoring and discard data will "smooth the fluctuations in the annual coverage level to provide additional stability" for the fishing industry.

That was a huge selling point for the industry.

"Using one data set, as they did in the past, created large fluctuations in the recommended coverage," Odell said. "We were concerned about that before. But now with the industry paying for it, it became even a larger concern. So, we're very supportive of using more data and making the program a more efficient and more evolved program."

Fishing advocates, however, were not pleased with the Framework 55 groundfish quotas that savagely cut catch limits for gray sole (down 55 percent from 2015), Georges Bank cod (down 66 percent), northern windowpane flounder (down 33 percent) and Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder down 28 percent).

"We're really dissatisfied with the process they continue to follow for stock assessments, especially how they estimate abundance," Odell said. "There continues to be a huge disconnect between what fishermen are seeing on the water and what these assessments are saying. The (annual catch limits) are just not reflective of reality."

NOAA, as part of the final-rule making procedure, also approved five companies to provide at-sea monitoring for Northeast multispecies fishing vessels in the 2016 fishing season. They are the same five firms that provided monitor coverage in the 2015 fishing season and the only firms to apply for NOAA approval for the season that begins Sunday.

They are:

-- MRAG Americas Inc., based in Essex;

--Fathom Research LLC, based in New Bedford;

--A.I.S., based in Marion;

--East West Technical Services LLC, based in Vero Beach, Florida; and

--ACD USA Ltd, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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



"The changes result in a target coverage level of 14 percent for the 2016 fishing year, including SBRM (Standardized Bycatch Reporting Methodology) coverage paid in full by the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP)," the new rule states. "Assuming NEFOP covers 4 percent of the trips as it has in recent years, this action results in sectors paying for approximately 10 percent of their vessels' trips in 2016."

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