By John Pappalardo
The old line about legislation and sausage being similar – you don’t really want to look too hard at how either of them is made – comes to mind for fishing regulations too. It can be quite a process.
Right now we are in the thick of an effort to improve what’s known as “the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan.” Amendment 23 to the plan is on the table, put there after years of discussion (cantankerous and otherwise) backed by data and research.
A key piece of this amendment would require more and better monitoring of what fishermen catch as they work. This has been a controversial proposal; some think it’s crucial to create accountability and better management, others think fishermen should not be subject to more oversight from human monitors or cameras recording their catch.
Whenever major proposals like Amendment 23 are introduced, there is a mandatory period for public comment. That can come forward in testimony at hearings (virtually these days), or written statements. Fishermen often do both, as does the Alliance as an organization.
So I thought it might be interesting to share our written comments. This version is edited down, mainly to take out the most technical language and topics; I realize there’s still some heavy going in it. But hopefully it offers insights into the big issue itself, how I’m thinking about it, why we are taking the positions we are, and how the federal process allows for public input.
A letter like this is sent to Tom Nies, the executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council. He and staff then build a big packet of materials that include such comments, delivered to every sitting member of the Council.
Here we go:
Dear Mr. Nies,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for Amendment 23 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan (FMP)…
For over a decade, the issue of unreported discards at sea and area misreporting has become an important source of uncertainty in Northeast Multispecies management. In addition, the NEFSC trawl survey struggles to complete its annual surveys in a consistent manner, a problem that will likely continue into the future due to the coronavirus pandemic and the planned development of large, offshore windfarms. Uncertainty over accurate and precise catch information and an inconsistent survey have combined to make management of the Northeast Multispecies complex frustrating. In addition, dockside monitoring and enforcement have been severely reduced or eliminated. These combined conditions have exacerbated an already contentious and challenging situation.
Consideration of increasing monitoring levels has met fierce resistance from the industry. Primarily, the arguments have centered upon the cost to the vessel. These are real and legitimate concerns. Indeed, the AM23 DEIS details these costs in a battery of analyses. The costs estimated therein are cause for concern should they be placed on individual vessels. Fortunately, there is financial support to offset the transition and startup costs associated with AM23.
Today, the NEFMC has an opportunity to take advantage of three years of generous federal appropriations (~$30m) to recommend much needed adjustments to the Northeast Multispecies FMP. Monitoring required by AM23 can put an end to the long running debate over to what degree discards occur in the fishery and to the extent they do occur, how widespread the practice is, and whether it is at a scale that could impact the assessments…
The NEFMC should take advantage of the funding available to maximize monitoring coverage for a period of three years. At the end of that time, a valuable baseline will exist from which to consider adjustments in monitoring coverage…
Commercial Groundfish Monitoring Program Revisions (Sectors Only)
We support the Council’s selection of a standard ASM coverage level of 100% to include additional sector monitoring tools beyond human at-sea monitors, including the use of electronic monitoring programs (audit and maximized retention models). We acknowledge that the EM programs are being developed cooperatively between NOAA and the fishing industry and encourage NOAA to refine the programs to address fishermen’s concerns prior to implementation… We also support increasing the overall coverage levels in the groundfish fishery. Current and previous levels of monitoring have not been sufficient to account for all catch from the fishery. The lack of accounting leaves gaping holes in the data used to inform fishery assessments, causing the assessments to perform poorly… The cycle of using flawed data to produce flawed assessments has led to a long-term failure of the fishery to reach its full potential…
Full accountability will produce better results for the fishery itself and for honest participants in the industry…
Commercial Groundfish Monitoring Program Revisions (Sectors and Common Pool)
The Council selected no action as its preferred alternative. No action would maintain the status quo of no mandatory dockside monitoring program for sectors and the common pool.
We support the Council’s selection of no action. Dockside monitoring is only one component of the greater suite of alternatives that the council should approve… We believe that dockside monitoring should not be mandated, but should still be an accessible tool to use to complement other monitoring methods…
Funding/Operational Provisions of Groundfish Monitoring (Sectors and Common Pool)
This alternative allows waivers for exempting vessels from industry-funded monitoring requirements for sectors and common pool under certain conditions.
We support this alternative. A key component to ensuring the success of new monitoring revisions is to allow flexibility in some areas. This would allow fishing effort to be unobstructed by potential NMFS funding insufficiencies, while still allowing the NMFS and sectors to strive toward a common goal of additional monitoring in the fishery…
A transition from the 40% coverage level in FY2020 to 100% in FY2022 seems reasonable, as some transition time will be necessary to enable infrastructure and training, and for service providers to ramp up to full coverage at a fleet-wide scale.
In 2018, 2019, and 2020 Congress appropriated $10.3m annually for monitoring. While there is no way to know what a future Congress will do with respect to this program, it is appropriate to assume a significant portion of that $30.9m is available to offset costs (analyzed as the subsidy model in AM23 DEIS). Analysis suggests the appropriated dollars could support two to three years of AM23 ASM at 100% coverage of the current fleet.
Development of a strong and certain catch information baseline will enable a future Council to make tactical, data-based adjustments to the monitoring program of the NE Multispecies Plan in a future action. Access to closed areas, reporting requirements, management uncertainty buffers and other management measures will benefit from accurate and precise catch information. We would expect the stock assessment process to improve as well. We believe that the Council should increase monitoring levels to more effectively manage the groundfish fishery through better data inputs, and provide for the use of alternative monitoring tools like electronic monitoring. We encourage the council and the agency to implement these changes as efficiently as possible.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.