Delegation asks for delay in fisheries observer plan

Alaska Journal of CommerceDecember 16, 2012 

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council revisited the new program that will place human observers on a wider range of vessels come January, but ultimately did not ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to make any additional changes.

The council has asked to review several elements of the program at its April meeting, such as the two coverage pools to see if vessels can decide for themselves which one to join; the sampling method in the two pools; consideration of EM options; and cost components and possible reductions.

Alaska's congressional delegation of Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, and Rep. Don Young is asking for another change: delay implementing part of the program until electronic monitoring is a feasible alternative.

That request came in a Dec. 10 letter from the delegation to Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank.

"We share the broad-based concerns of fishermen from Ketchikan to Kodiak that the restructured observer program deployment plan could negatively impact the jobs of individual small boat fishermen and crews, and with potentially wider impacts to jobs in small businesses and fishing communities in Alaska," the delegation wrote.

The delegation's request focused on the vessel selection pool, which includes boats between 40 and 57.5 feet in length and could receive coverage for 60 days at a time.

The council motion supported both the trip and vessel selection pools, as well as work on a strategic plan for EM. National Marine Fisheries Service is working on an EM pilot project, but the letter asked for the technology to be used in place of human observers more quickly.

NMFS presented the council with changes to its 2013 annual deployment meeting at the start of the December meeting in response to the council's October motion.

As the observer program and deployment plan stand now, the vessel selection pool will now receive less coverage than the trip selection pool, which mostly includes larger trawl vessels for which bycatch of salmon, halibut and tanner crab are concerns. The shift in priority for 2013 came after the council requested that change in October.

Martin Loefflad, head of the NMFS observer program, said that nine vessel owners have been notified that they were chosen for 60 days of observer coverage as part of the vessel selection pool.

The larger boats in the trip selection pool will receive approximately 14 or 15 percent coverage, depending on how the voluntary full coverage program works out for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Island Pacific cod fleet and Gulf of Alaska trawl fleets. The voluntary full coverage program was added at the council's request.

In the trip selection pool, vessels will be expected to log each trip, and will randomly be selected for an observer.

"I think you've nudged the program the right way," Loefflad told the council.

Glenn Merrill, from NMFS' Sustainable Fisheries division, Alaska Region, also said that under the changes, IFQ shareholders will count as crew, so that a vessel owner does not have to displace that person in order to accommodate an observer.

Sitka fisherman Dan Falvey said that change was appreciated, but not all of the fleet's concerns had been handled.

"We see a need for restructuring, we're willing to pay our fare share of the restructuring, we want to provide (better data) to fishery managers and we understand the need for that, but we need the tools that allow us to provide this data in a way that works for our businesses and our vessels," Falvey said.

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