Gaming of observer program before council in October
The National Marine Fisheries Service issued a draft report on its revamped fisheries observer program after nearly a full year of implementation, and few changes are planned for 2014 although issues surrounding tendering continue.
The September draft of the 2014 plan for the observer program, which was restructured this year, is set to be discussed at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Anchorage Oct. 2 to 8. The council had made requests for changes in June, and a letter and report addressing those requests, along with the 2014 plan, were released in preparation for the meeting.
The new annual deployment plan, or ADP, does not have any major changes. Nor does it explain all of the concerns raised at the June council meeting.
According to the report and other council documents, tendering issues involving unobserved deliveries persist but will not be addressed in the immediate future.
In addition to predicted “gaming” where vessels in the trip-selection pool can continuously deliver to tenders without having to register for a new trip that may result in an observer on board, less information is available about salmon and halibut bycatch in deliveries to tender vessels compared to vessel deliveries to shore-side processors.
That’s because tenders do not have an observer on board, so when fish is delivered to them, no one is accounting for the incidentally caught chinook salmon or halibut in the haul unless an observer was on the delivering vessel. Observers at shore-side processors are also not responsible for sampling or monitoring when the tenders offload there, according to the report.
According to a letter to the council from NMFS Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger and an explanation accompanying it, deploying observers on tenders could help with those bycatch accounting issues, but would require regulatory changes.
It appears that the gaming of the system that was predicted before the 2013 implementation by many stakeholders is also at play in the use of tenders.
In the partial coverage category, vessels are sorted into trip and vessel selection pools and randomly chosen to take on an observer. Those in the trip pool are vessels 58 feet or longer, and are selected for one observed trip at a time. Those in the vessel pool are between 40 and 57 feet in length, and selected for 60 days of observation. Vessels shorter than 40 feet are in the “zero coverage” pool.
The definition of a trip is based on shore-side deliveries, and the concern was that vessels would make several tender deliveries to avoid starting a new trip and potentially taking on an observer.
According to the preliminary performance review, trips taken by unobserved vessels generally included more tender deliveries than observed trips. When observed, nearly all trips included fewer than five deliveries to tenders and no vessels made more than 10 tender deliveries.
On unobserved trips, there were typically more tender deliveries, and a small number of trips included more than 10 tender deliveries and as many as 18.
In a letter to the council, Balsiger wrote that the issue could not easily be resolved.
“Unfortunately, the complexity of the issue requires additional evaluation to identify effective solutions and likely will require regulatory amendments,” Balsiger wrote.
In the 2014 annual deployment plan, no changes are planned to account for that issue due to regulatory challenges. The plan states: “NMFS recognizes that tender activity may represent an important source of variance and/or bias in catch data. Therefore we recommend assessing tender activity once a full year of information is available and, if warranted, evaluate regulatory strategies to address the issue.”
At the council’s observer advisory committee meeting in June, the agency indicated that it would consider ways to address tenders over the summer, collect more information, and “may have recommendations in this regard for the 2014 annual deployment plan,” according to minutes from that meeting.
Another problem identified in June has not yet been addressed, which is a concern over the number of unobserved pollock deliveries in the Gulf of Alaska.
The preliminary data has shown that certain pollock deliveries are going unobserved, but information about why that is happening still is not available.
The report and letter did not provide new information as to why that issue is happening, although more information is expected at the October meeting.
Through May in Akutan and King Cove, 40 out of 46 deliveries were not observed. In Seward, six deliveries were made, and none were observed.
In total, about 88.4 percent of pollock deliveries by non-American Fisheries Act vessels in the Gulf were observed, compared to 100 percent coverage of AFA vessel deliveries from the Bering Sea.
The Gulf deliveries, which are by non-AFA participants, are subject to certain prohibited species catch limits, including for chinook salmon and halibut. The catch accounting system relies on the observer data, so if the data is not representative of all fishing activity, it could be misrepresenting the true catch numbers.
In a Sept. 9 email, Martin Loefflad, who is heading up the observer program for NMFS, said he would not be able to answer questions about those unobserved deliveries before the October meeting due to the NMFS workload. However, he wrote that the issues might be addressed in the report to the council.
In June, Loefflad said it was hard to say the exact reason, and whether the issue was related to tendering, the instructions NMFS had given observers, or another issue.
The report notes that industry is supposed to inform observers of a pollock delivery so that they can be monitored.
In addition, the council is trying to get better genetic information about chinook salmon caught incidentally in the Gulf, but needs a certain representative sample to do so. The council wants better information on where chinooks caught in the Gulf are headed, and is working on how to get a representative look at that based where and when observers can takes samples for the genetic work.
NMFS addresses issues aside from tendering
Other aspects of the plan will change in response to the council’s June motion.
According to the 2014 plan, coverage is being shifted slightly to prioritize vessels in the trip-selection pool. For 2013, NMFS covered about 14 to 15 percent of the trip pool, which includes most of the Gulf trawl fleet, and about 11.8 percent in the vessel pool, which includes much of the longline and pot fleet.
The 2014 plan calls for 13.7 percent coverage in the trip pool and 10.2 percent coverage in the vessel pool.
How coverage is prioritized has been an ongoing issue, and the 2013 rates reflected the council’s October 2012 request that NMFS shift coverage toward the trip pool. In June the council asked for an additional shift, noting that the trip-pool vessels — namely trawlers — were an ongoing priority.
NMFS also told the council that it would fulfill its request that observers would not displace crew members or IFQ holders (halibut and sablefish longliners) by continuing to provide releases from coverage on vessels where that could be a problem, although that will only apply to vessels in the vessel selected pool.
In his letter to the council, Balsiger addressed other issues the council raised.
The agency considered, but does not recommend, changing the vessel selection pool to 30 days, rather than 60, Balsiger wrote. That’s because it would increase the administrative workload and require development and use of a new check-in/check-out procedure for operators. Balsiger also wrote that it could increase the chance that a vessel would change behavior to avoid coverage.
That’s also been an ongoing issue. The 2013 deployment plan originally called for 90-day periods, but NMFS changed that to 60 days after a October 2012 request from the council.
The agency also provided more information on the council’s request to provide a release from coverage when an IFQ holder had limited halibut or sablefish remaining, but determined that doing so would be difficult under the current regulatory scheme. In his letter, Balsiger told the council that it would need to take up an analysis outside of the annual deployment plan to consider that change.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.