Council revamps observer program after first annual report


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More top-level observers are needed in North Pacific fisheries, and the federal regulatory council took action in Nome to increase their numbers at its June meeting.

Photo/Courtesy/National Marine Fisheries Service

NOME — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took action to address issues with the revised marine observer program June 5, including getting rid of the vessel selection pool that put observers on certain smaller boats for 60 days at a time.

The council manages fisheries in federal waters — from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska — and met in Nome June 4-9 to discuss several fisheries issues including the first annual observer report.

However, the report didn’t have as much information as some hoped, and the council also asked NMFS to return with more information in October, when it reviews the 2015 annual deployment plan, or ADP.

The council’s actions supported moving smaller vessels into the trip selection pool, maintaining a higher coverage rate for trawl vessels and larger fixed gear vessels, and increasing the number of Lead Level Two observers, all for 2015.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, implemented the revised observer program in January 2013, and the council’s discussion was the first time the council has had a full year of data from the new program to review.

In that program, vessels in the partial-coverage category were sorted into trip selection and vessel selection pools. The trip selection pool includes certain trawlers and vessels longer than 57.5 feet. Those vessels are expected to log each fishing trip, and are randomly selected for observer coverage on a trip-by-trip basis.

The current vessel selection pool includes boats between 40 and 57.5 feet. Those are chosen for coverage for 60 days at a time. Boats in the vessel selection pool were able to apply for waivers from coverage if the owners could demonstrate safety concerns, lack of space or the displacement of working crew to accommodate an observer.

The council’s motion supported the NMFS recommendation to move the small boats in the vessel selection pool to the trip selection pool.

The change came after significant public testimony during the past two years that having an observer for all fishing activity during a 60-day period was particularly onerous for the small boat fleet.

During public testimony, Ilya Kuzman, from Homer-based K-bay Fisheries Association, agreed that there would be less need for waivers if vessels were observed for a trip at a time, rather than 60 days at a time.

Martin Loefflad, who heads up the observer program for NMFS, said that moving the vessels could reduce the burden for the smaller boat fleet.

“The feedback I’ve gotten is a trip is a lot easier to deal with than a two-month period,” he said.

However, Loefflad also said that if the change is made to the two pools, NMFS will likely also change the criteria for conditional releases from coverage, potentially to only waive the requirement when there is a significant safety issue, such as life raft capacity.

During testimony, though, fishers noted the importance of the waivers for making the observer program work so far.

Sitka fisherman Jeff Farver said that he crews on a 46-foot boat, and without the conditional releases the boat receives from coverage based on space, he wouldn’t have a crew job.

The council’s motion asked NMFS for more information on the burden of having an observer for one trip, and the agency’s ability to grant waivers on short-notice so that it can make a recommendation about waivers for the 2015 annual deployment plan. The information will be provided for the October meeting when the ADP is discussed.

The council motion, which was made by council member Dan Hull, prioritized coverage in the trip-selection pool for trawlers and larger vessels, however, and council members noted that they wanted to continue to prioritize those vessels with prohibited species catch caps.

Hull said that was largely self-explanatory, but noted that the larger vessels generally harvest more fish, and that it was important to collect consistent data from year to year. Prioritizing the larger vessels would help ensure that the data was comparable to the first two years of the program, he said.

The motion also asked for information from NMFS on how and when the program will begin to shift coverage so that it reflects management needs of each fishery.

The council’s main observer motion also asked NMFS to consider several items when drafting the 2015 annual deployment plan and the next annual report, including providing more information about observer rates and coverage by gear type, evaluating bycatch estimation, and more information on costs.

Loefflad told the council during his report that it’s difficult to provide very much specific cost information, including the price for one day of observer coverage, because of confidentiality requirements.

Council member Duncan Fields also made a motion asking for a discussion paper about moving all trawlers into the full-coverage category, but that did not pass, as he was the only yes vote. Instead, the council discussed looking at that as part of the Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch management package that it will discuss in October.

Council member Jim Balsiger, who is the Alaska Region administrator for NMFS, said he supported full coverage for the Gulf of Alaska trawlers, but that the discussion was more appropriate for the Gulf trawl bycatch package the council is working on.

Council chair Eric Olson agreed, but noted that waiting for the Gulf discussion could delay discussing the Bering Sea, although that could be discussed as an amendment to the Gulf package, he said.

The council also heard testimony from fishers and the observer industry on the issue with the number of Lead Level Two observers available, and unanimously agreed to ask NMFS to change the system that certifies the higher-level observers. 

That motion was made by council member Craig Cross, and was meant to expand the pool of those observers by crediting both observers when two are onboard a fixed-gear vessel, rather than just crediting the lead observer.

An observer must log a certain number of hours in order to get the LL2 certification.

Right now, there are not always enough of the high level observers available, making it difficult for some vessels to get out with an observer when they want to fish.

During staff tasking (the “housekeeping” agenda item at the end of the meeting), Cross made an additional motion on observers that asking NMFS to look for a longer-term solution to having a large enough pool of the LL2 observers.

Michael Lake, owner of Alaskan Observers, told the council that his business has taken a hit under the revised program because some flexibility was lost, and he’d like to see more of a focus on how the program has changed things for the full-coverage fleet, not just the partial-coverage fleet.

Freezer Longline Coalition Executive Director Chad See also supported the council taking action, and said that has fleet and the observer provider shouldn’t be burdened by the number of available providers.

Tenders, electronic monitoring

The council also took up two related items: a possible regulatory amendment on tenders, and a report from the electronic monitoring, or EM, workgroup.

Tender deliveries are not observed, and the council began the regulatory amendment process to address that last year, after seeing information that indicated that fishing patterns were different when delivering to tenders versus shore-based processors. That showed up in the first 14 weeks of 2013 fishing trip information; the full year data showed less of a difference.

Instead of pursuing action immediately, the council asked NMFS for more information before it decides how to prioritize the amendment. Essentially, the council wants to know if fishing behavior was different in the first 14 weeks of 2014, as well, or it was a single-year event.

Council members said that the issue could be that fishing behavior is different in the winter fishery, perhaps because of conditions or timing (the pollock fishery takes place over a short span during spawning), or it could be that once the tender differences were discovered, vessels stopped the behavior entirely. More data is necessary to see which is occurring, however.

The council’s Advisory Panel, or AP, recommended asking for that data.

The council also removed one alternative from the analysis, and will consider it as part of the Gulf of Alaska trawl bycatch package instead — that alternative would have allowed observers on a fishing vessel to observe the tender delivery.

The council’s motion on electronic monitoring called for continued work on the cooperative research program and will send it to the Scientific and Statistical Committee for review before it is enacted, asked staff to work toward an eventual regulatory amendment package, and noted that it wants to see EM field work continue after June 2015, when the regulatory amendment process is underway.

The motion also asked for information on funding availability and for NMFS to look at incorporating pot and trawl fisheries into the council’s EM process.

Hull made the motions on tendering and EM.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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