Washington, DC — The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is moving forward with a new system of at-sea monitors to report on fishing fleet catches. By limiting reports to commercial information on compliance with catch share quotas, the new monitor system threatens to throw over protections for protected marine species and undermine the independent professional observers program, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Public comments close this week on NOAA’s plan for implementing an alternative management system called “catch shares” to replace or augment the current fisheries management scheme in its Northeast Region, covering waters from Maine to New York. The new system, including use of at-sea monitors required to have only a high school degree, is slated to be in place by May 1, 2010.
While not explicitly replacing professional observers, the at-sea monitors would be paid less, require less training and limited to observations that have implications for the commercial objectives of the fleet. By contrast, observers are the only independent monitor of compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and protections for whales, dolphins, seabirds and sea turtles. Observers work under contract with NOAA.
The option of low cost at-sea monitors instead of professional observers will work to the detriment of marine resources because the monitors –
• Do not report on discarded by-catch. By-catch may take a large toll on fish species that are in recovery and that should not be commercially harvested;
• Have no responsibility for policing compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act. This means that monitors will ignore incidents such as collisions with whales or injury to seabirds; and
• Lack any guarantee of independence from conflict of interest and are themselves not subject to any monitoring or quality control while at sea.
“NOAA should not sell out marine protection in a race to the bottom,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Seasoned observers are the eyes and ears of NOAA; it is dangerous and challenging work that cannot easily be done by someone just out of high school.”
Professional observers can also monitor catch share programs, which are designed to reduce overfishing and enable fishers to have a bigger role in managing the resources that they are permitted to harvest. The cheaper alternative of at-sea monitors will inevitably lead to replacement of observers, according to the Association of Professional Observers which represents the approximately 700 observers who accompany commercial fishing vessels in 42 different fisheries.
Previous reviews of the NOAA fishery management program emphasize the need for a stable corps of experienced observers. In addition, previous programs using less experienced monitors have been plagued by high turnover, poor quality data and other performance problems.
“NOAA does not need a new, overlapping monitoring system which will actually cost more to administer,” added Ruch. “NOAA would get a much better return for the public by investing in strengthening the existing observer program.”