Thursday, July 2, 2015


The ocean—even that 197 mile-wide strip that defines the federal waters of the United States—is a pretty big place, and it’s impossible to watch it all.

That’s a problem for fisheries managers, who need to figure out just how many fish are out there and, at least as important, how many fish aren’t there anymore because they’ve either been captured and landed or caught and dumped back overboard dead as unsalable bycatch and regulatory discards.

One of the ways managers try to keep track of fishermen’s encounters with both fish and protected species such as turtles, seabirds and marine mammals is through the use of paid observers who record the numbers, and sometimes the size and weight, of the various critters that the gear drags aboard.

Of course, no one really likes having someone look over their shoulders, and fishermen are no exception.  That’s particularly true of fishermen who might want to keep a little bit more than the law would allow, or out-of-season species, or perhaps those using “dirty” gear that has a tendency to entrap and kill overfished species or to drown threatened sea turtles and whales.

And it grates on fishermen a little more when the money for the observers comes out of their own pockets.

Thus, it comes as no surprise that the New England Fishery Management Council recently asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to take emergency action to lift the observer requirements for commercial fishing boats in the northeast, after it became clear that federal money for the program was running out and that fishermen would have to start paying the tab, perhaps as soon as this August.

The New England fishermen are worried that the shortage of northeastern groundfish, and the resultant strict regulations, has already impacted their income so badly that the cost of carrying observers would be intolerable.

Of course, if there had been a robust observer program in place years ago, reporting on discard mortality and overharvest and such, perhaps there would be a few more fish off New England today…

Fisheries conservation advocates certainly disagree with the New England Council’s request. 

“A good monitoring system tracks the amount and types of fish taken from the water and also gathers information about the ‘bycatch,’ or nontarget animals killed by fishing.  These data are essential for proper fishery management, and a decline in monitoring in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic undermines efforts to make the region’s fishing more sustainable.
“…it is discouraging to see the rate of monitoring drop to the single digits.  Measurement is the heart of science, and you can’t manage a fishery if you can’t measure what’s happening there.”
Fishermen, on the other hand, are far less enamored of observers, at least when it comes to their own fisheries; however, they often support observers in fisheries other than their own, particularly in large, industrial fisheries that can do real harm to non-target species.  

In New England, big mid-water trawlers, which are capable of doing real harm to stocks of non-target species while trawling for herring, are seen as vessels in need of constant monitoring.

“As a young fisherman, I promise you that I’m not going to inherit any money from the midwater boats.  But I will inherit what they leave behind.”

“There are documented instances where they’ve interacted with bottom groundfish.  One man said bottom sensors wouldn’t be fit for his boat because he’d keep breaking them.  If you’re towing in midwater, it doesn’t make sense that you’d break a bottom sensor…” 
And not only fishermen are concerned.  Other businesses dependent upon abundant marine resources, such as whale watching tours, also see the need for monitoring.  One whale watch operator said

“For a long time, we heard from midwater and pair trawlers boats that they don’t want to catch groundfish, they don’t want to occasionally catch marine mammals, they don’t want to dump fish—but that it was the price of doing business.
“I think that kind of mentality has to end…To me, 100 percent [observer] coverage is the compromise…Without observers, they can fish close to the bottom, they can be more aggressive in pursuing fish, they can fish closer to whales and porpoises and dolphins.  They can dump fish.  So having observers, I think, will bring transparency to this process…I think if the industry really believes that they have a very clean fishery and can fish clean, then they should be in support of 100 percent coverage, because then that will clear up the questions…”
However, the midwater trawl fishery up in New England won’t be required to have anything close to 100 percent observer coverage.  As Peter Baker stated in his Fish Talk piece,

“monitoring of the midwater trawlers in the industrialized Atlantic herring fishing fleet is projected to drop from 30 percent of fishing trips in 2014 to about 3 percent in 2015.  Midwater trawlers fishing for Atlantic mackerel, a depleted species, will have no monitors at all this year, according to NOAA.”
That’s not good, and it opens the door to all sorts of mischief that can occur out on the vast and lonely sea. 

Commercial fishermen might object to the suggestion that they need monitors to keep them honest, but a Wall Street Journal article from 2013, entitled “Duel Erupts on the High Seas” suggests that is exactly the case, at least in the Cape Cod monkfish fleet.  

Subtitled “Crews Make Life Hard for Observers Eyeing Fish Quotas; It’s Almost Like Hazing,” the articles describes how at least some boats’ crews hid from observers when they came to the docks, hoping that they might slip off to sea without taking an observer aboard. 

Observers, said the article, were “unwelcome” and subject to harassment by the crew.  

A boat’s captain effectively justified such treatment, at least in his own mind, by saying that he viewed observers as people who were trying to put him out of business—a view hard to justify if he and his crew killed—or didn’t kill—the same fish when they were off on their own as they did when an observer was watching.

That’s not a purely American view; an English newspaper, the Guardian, reported that crews of European fishing vessels were “regularly” intimidated and offered bribes.  Reflecting the same attitudes described in the Wall Street Journal report, it went on to say that

“Observers monitoring European fish quotas are being regularly intimidated, offered bribes and undermined by the fishing crews that they are observing, a Guardian investigation has discovered.
“More than 20 current and former observers on Portuguese and Spanish ships said that they had experienced tactics such as being put under surveillance, deprived of sleep, or threatened with being thrown overboard, or having their official documentation stolen by fishing crews to conceal a culture of overfishing.”
Ironically, such an aversion to observers on both sides of the Atlantic is powerful testimony demonstrating that the observers are doing their job, and creating a strong bulwark against abusive fishing practices and the waste of living marine resources.

If fishermen didn’t think that observers were making a difference, they’d be a lot less hostile toward taking observers aboard.

Thus, while the expense of observers probably was the prime reason for the New England Council’s action, we would be naïve to think that other factors didn’t play a large role as well.

That being the case, it is essential that NMFS expand observer coverage in many fisheries, rather than cutting it back.

Because it is only observers, and not weighout slips nor dockside inspections, that can give managers a true picture of what fishermen catch—not just the fish that they declare on their vessel trip reports, but the fish and other creatures that never make it back to the pier, but instead are ignominiously dumped out at sea.

If managers are to do their job properly, they must have good estimates of everything killed in the fishery, whether or not the fishermen keep it.

And out on the lonely sea, only observers can be relied on to get that count right.

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