Imagine trying to run a Main Street business -- a restaurant or gift shop, maybe -- during the COVID-19 pandemic. A cratered economy and the threat of disease make each day a challenge and the future uncertain. Now imagine the government dropping another $700 in fees on you every time you open your doors. There's no way your mom-and-pop operation could survive.

Yet that's just what the New England fishing industry is facing as regulators move closer to requiring that boat owners pay to have a government monitor on every trip. The monitors -- the federal government calls them "observers" -- assess the health of fish stocks and make sure fishermen are following the rules.

The New England Fishery Management Council, which essentially sets the rules for commercial fishing in the region, will meet next week to decide how often monitors will be required on fishing vessels -- 25%, 50%, 75% or 100% of trips. Early indications are that councilors will require a monitor on every trip, with the average cost of $700 to be borne by fishermen. Regulators have thus far turned their backs on industry pleas to have the government pay for the program, or develop less-intrusive electronic monitoring programs.

"Industry," perhaps, is the wrong word to describe a loose confederation of dozens of independently owned small businesses. As of 2018. according to the management council, there was a mere 179 groundfish boats working in the entire Northeast, down from 299 in 2012 and a far cry from a century ago, when each port in the region boasted two or three times that number.

Things have only gotten worse over the last two years, according to the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. In a letter asking Gov. Charlie Baker to lobby on their behalf, the coalition noted that of the 179 boats counted in 2018, only 113 were actually active in Massachusetts.

"This has further declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic," the group noted. Boats that do go out are working with a skeleton crew to keep operating costs low. Adding another $700 in fees erases those savings.

What's more, the management council is poised to move forward even before the Massachusetts fleet has seen a penny of the $11.8 million in COVID-19 assistance funds promised this spring. 

There's no arguing a well-crafted monitoring program can provide useful data and oversight. Forcing vessel captains to take a stranger on their boat during the height of a pandemic while paying $700 for the privilege, however, should be no one's idea of a sustainable plan, especially with the future of dozens of small businesses hanging in the balance.


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