Revised observer program needs funds to start in 2013
Coming soon to a small halibut boat near you: fishery observers.
New rules set for 2013 will change how observers are placed on fishing boats as small as 40 feet – and for the first time, they will be aboard longliners.
Onboard observers have been deployed on larger U.S. vessels since the early 1990s, when fisheries were “Americanized” and all foreign fishing within a 200-mile zone of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska was terminated. Prior to that, fleets from Japan, Russia, Poland and other nations were tapping Alaska’s groundfish and crab resources starting in 1933.
Fishery observers, who are trained and overseen by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Monitoring and Analysis Division, do not play an enforcement role. Rather, they take biological samples of the catch, track bycatch and collect other data for fishery managers and scientists. Observers also are on the job in Alaska processing plants during fish deliveries. Currently, there are about 400 observers working in Alaska’s seafood industry.
Observers were originally deployed according to vessel length. Boats less than 60 feet were exempt from coverage; vessels from 60 feet to 125 feet carried observers 30 percent of the time, and larger vessels had 100 percent or more coverage.
The “restructured” observer program will expand coverage to vessels “all the way down to 40 feet, and NMFS has the authority to place observers on vessels below that,” said Julie Bonney, a trawl industry consultant and director of Alaska Groundfish Data Bank in Kodiak.
And for the first time observers will be aboard longline vessels.
“There’s never been observer coverage in the IFQ halibut fisheries, so now we’ll have information from that sector, as well as all the small vessels,” Bonney said. “We all have issues and we all need to work hard to address those. So getting that information will help us understand how we can move forward in the best practices.”
Another fisheries first — for both Alaska and the U.S. — collecting data via video cameras that monitor the catch.
“Vessels in the 40 to 57.5 foot sector that are not capable of carrying another person on board can have that as an option,” Bonney said. “It’s kind of exciting because electronic monitoring has not been approved in any regional areas in the US as a monitoring tool. So this will really push the envelope to move that technology forward through the observer restructuring package.”
The 2013 launch of the retooled observer program depends on getting a $3.8 million jumpstart from Congress. Alaska is the only state where for more than 20 years, the seafood industry has paid for fishery observer coverage. Sen. Mark Begich said it is time for the federal government to kick in a little.
“We’ve been doing it all along with our own money. This is an important national resource it is a small amount that can be added to make sure we maintain our sustainable fisheries,” Begich said at a press conference. “The good news is that it has made it through the process to date, which is very positive. They are working under the financial limitations and caps of the budget, so that’s good.”
(Learn more about Alaska’s fishery observer program at www.afsc.noaa.gov/FMA/default.htm)
A statewide poll of 802 Alaska voters done last month asked opinions of various public figures, industries and issues. The poll was done by research powerhouse Strategies 360 for the Bristol Bay Native Corp. and included voters from all demographics and regions.
A sampler: 54 percent said they believe Alaska is heading in the right direction; 27 percent said the economy and jobs is the most important issue facing Alaska today.
The fishing industry got the highest favorable rating at 79 percent followed by the Alaska gas pipeline at 75 percent, and the oil and gas industry at 66 percent.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski had a 61 percent favorable rating, Gov. Sean Parnell was at 52 percent, Rep. Don Young at 51 percent and Sen. Mark Begich at 48 percent. The Alaska legislature had a 45 percent favorable rating by voters.
The proposed Pebble mine ranked last among voters with an unfavorable rating of 54 percent.
Meanwhile, as exploration at the Pebble site expands, BBNC President and CEO Jason Metrokin said he worries that the state Department of Natural Resources simply doesn’t have the manpower to monitor a project the size of Pebble, along with other big development projects.
“From what we’ve seen the DNR has not been able to handle sizeable projects that are on the time and horizon today. The project is expanding, the potential footprint is getting larger, and there is a lot of activity happening in Bristol Bay today. We are not convinced the state is doing its part to monitor this exploration,” Metrokin said in a phone interview. “But beyond that, if the Pebble project continues to go forward and they get into a permit application phase late next year, is the state prepared to take on that process, knowing that there are several other development projects happening around the state? The DNR should be gearing up and staffing up and resourcing up now in order to prepare for something like that, and we just don’t see that happening.”
See the voter survey at www.bbnc.net/images/stories/newfolder/release_toplines.pdf.
Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit alaskafishfactor.com for more information or contact email@example.com.