The specter of increased observer coverage on the decks of their boats is not sitting well with Massachusetts lobstermen, whose resistance to the NOAA Fisheries plan was in full flower at a public meeting Thursday night in Gloucester.

Resistance? It was more like rebellion.

“We don’t want to end up like the groundfish guys,” Arthur “Sooky” Sawyer, the longtime Gloucester lobsterman who serves as president of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, told NOAA representatives at federal agency’s regional headquarters in the Blackburn Industrial Park. “I don’t need anybody to measure my lobsters. I can measure my own lobsters.”

That was one of the milder comments, as the audience of about 50 lobstermen from the North Shore and other Massachusetts coastal communities peppered NOAA representatives with questions and concerns about the regulator’s plan to expand its Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP) in the New England lobstering industry and as far down the East Coast as Maryland.

The lobstermen were particularly livid over two issues: what they perceived as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s inability to grasp the extent of the safety issues that will be created by putting observers and their gear onto already-cramped lobster boats and the lack of definitive answers on whether boat owners will carry any of the financial liability if an observer is injured while at sea.

“I’ll get rid of my permit before I’ll let these guys on my boat,” yelled one lobsterman from the back of the crowd.

The NOAA team, which included representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard and the private MRAG Americas company that supplies observers to monitor the lobster industry, planned to give a visual and oral presentation and then open the floor up to questions.

It didn’t quite work that way. Fishery biologist Glenn Chamberlain was interrupted by comments and questions as soon as he began the presentation.

One of the first questions was about how much monitoring — broken down into individual sea days — the Massachusetts lobstermen can expect in the 2015 fishing season.

“We have a schedule, but we don’t want to release the final numbers,” said Woods Hole-based NOAA fishery biologist Sara Weeks, who moderated the meeting. “We are dancing around it because the analysis is not finished.

“But it will be greater than 200 days.”

The elicited significant grumbling from the lobstermen, but nothing compared to what happened when the issues of safety and financial liability were raised.

Lobsterman after lobsterman told the presenters that there is no way the observers can safely operate on their small boats without proving to be a hazard to the lobstermen and themselves. They described the cramped nature of their boat decks and their minimal work space crowded with traps, bait barrels, lines, lobster tanks, banding stations and other gear.

“These are small boats, with lots of lines and gear,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association. “It’s hazardous. You’re putting these observers in harm’s way and they’re going to be a liability to these (lobstermen).”

Others pointed out that the observers often show up with their own large collection of gear, including bushel baskets, measuring tools and instruments and a survival suit.

“Where are we supposed to stow all of that?” one lobsterman asked.

At one point, Sawyer asked Weeks if she’s ever been on a lobster boat. She replied that she has not.

The temperature in the room really rose during the discussion of the boat owners’ financial liability if an observer is injured during a trip.

Members of the crowd repeatedly asked the presenters to define the fishermen’s liability. Weeks and Charlie Pitts, MRAG’s area lead coordinator, said they’d have to get back to them with those answers.

That resulted in several calls to immediately suspend the placement of any observers on lobster boats until those details are presented.

“If my 19-year-old daughter was an observer and died on his boat,” Casoni said, pointing in the hypothetical to a lobsterman to her right. “I’d get a good lawyer and I’d sue NOAA and I’d sue him. And I’d win.”

The lobstermen also were not happy with answers they received on why they are being targeted for expanded observer coverage.

Weeks said it is a combination of factors, largely stemming from the previous year’s bycatch and discard data generated in NOAA’s standardized bycatch reporting methodology and the need for the agency to expend all of the funds allocated to it to pay for observers.

It is not, Weeks said, because the agency has a surplus of idle observers from the shrinking of the Northeast multispecies groundfishing fleet. She said the monitoring for groundfish is a separate program from the NEFOP monitoring program.

“This is not about keeping observers employed,” Weeks said.

She also said the expanded coverage — which for now will be funded completely by NOAA — is not being instituted because lobstermen are being partially blamed by the groundfishing industry for the dire status of the Gulf of Maine cod stock.

Many of the lobstermen weren’t buying that.

“You’ve done nothing here tonight to convince us that’s not the case,” Sawyer said. “We have no confidence in you at all.” 

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT and check out his blog, Glosta Daily, on gloucestertimes.com

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