North Pacific council votes to hike observer fees in 2021

  • The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has voted to increase the rate charged to fishermen to cover the cost of placing observers on vessels, from 1.25 percent to 1.65 percent. (Photo/Courtesy/National Marine Fisheries Service)

The costs for on-board fisheries observers will be increasing, and no one in the industry is particularly happy about it.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to adjust the observer fee percentage to 1.65 percent of ex-vessel values. It was previously set at 1.25 percent.

The increase is intended to cover additional observer services to reach the target coverage rate set out by the council for the various fisheries across the North Pacific region.

Observers are hired through a federal contracting system. On board, the observers document the catches of both target species and bycatch, and take samples from the catch, among other responsibilities.

Typically, they have training in biological sciences and fisheries. Federally managed fisheries are designated as either partial or full coverage, with the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, determining where observers need to go based on the necessary data for each year.

Fishermen in the partial coverage category pay a 1.25 percent fee on their landings to cover the cost of observing and the deployment of electronic monitoring systems, collected by the processors on behalf of NMFS.

After the program was restructured in 2013, NMFS provided about $4.5 million in funding to help cover operations, and the federal government has contributed funds every year since — about 32 percent of total costs, according to documents submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

However, with the likelihood of federal support diminishing and costs increasing, the council has been looking for ways to fund the program through industry fees.

The fee change will be delayed until 2021, making the funds available to pay for at-sea coverage by mid-2022, according to a memo from council staff member Diana Evans.

“It should be noted that while the scope of this analysis is focused narrowly on the amount of the observer fee, the Council is also pursuing parallel initiatives with the Fishery Monitoring Advisory Committee (FMAC) to evaluate additional ways to improve cost efficiency for the program,” she wrote.

Stakeholders were everywhere from fiercely opposed to begrudgingly supportive, but no one seems to be happy about the increase, particularly in the fixed-gear fleet.

Most asked the council to cap the cost increase and instead pursue containment measures and efficiencies to avoid overburdening fishermen.

Many recognized that the observer program is important enough to have to continue, but were concerned about the long-term trajectory.

Partial coverage is more expensive per trip than full-coverage fisheries. In 2018, a single observer day cost $1,380, while full-coverage observer days cost $382 per day. In theory, the observer fee is supposed to be shared between the processors and fishermen, but the fee analysis completed by council staff indicates that the burden may be shifted more toward the harvesters than the processors, as the existence of a tax lowers the dockside price.

The North Pacific Fisheries Association, a trade group based in Homer, pointed to this in connection with its opposition to a fee increase.

“NPFA appreciates that the Observer Program is operating on a tight budget, but so are our members,” NPFA President Malcolm Milne wrote in a comment to the council.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into the development of a workable Electronic Monitoring Program and have consistently participated in NPFMC committees and workgroups including the FMAC and its subgroups. It is imperative that the Observer Program control its costs and demonstrate some efficiencies and effectiveness before we would willing pay more money for it.”

The trawl fleet agreed, though the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative “begrudgingly” supported the fee increase to sustain the observer program, said Heather Mann, the group’s executive director.

“We need the observer program,” she said in testimony to the council. “We use it to manage fisheries. When I say begrudgingly (support), I also want to see cost containment measures … We can’t just let the program blow up; we need this program. So let’s fix it.”

She added that the group supported the motion that raised fees equally across the fishing sectors, rather than varying rates across sectors.

One alternative proposed in the fee analysis would have internalized the cost increase of vessels limited by protected species catch limits to those vessels — specifically, the prohibited catch species-limited trawl fleet.

The analysis reasoned that PSC catch by trawl vessels imposes costs on other sectors, but Mann argued that it isn’t fair to single out the trawl vessels.

Oceana, a national ocean conservation advocacy nonprofit, supported the fee increase to maintain coverage levels but also encouraged the council to pursue cost containment measures.

In its comments, the organization advocated for the council to switch all Gulf of Alaska trawl vessels to the full-coverage category, particularly to control bias in sampling because of the presence of an observer and to make costs more efficient for broader coverage.

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association also opposed the fee increases until the council looks for efficiencies and cost containment measures. Project Coordinator Dan Falvey told the council that the organization favored the continued implementation of electronic monitoring, which has equipment costs but is generally cheaper than a human observer and easier for small vessels.

With current costs increases, he said the program is unsustainable.

“How would (the council) sharpen your pencil, shave off 10 percent of the program costs while still getting the coverage rate?” he said.

Along with passing the 1.65 percent increase, the council passed a set of priorities for the partial coverage category focusing on cost containment.

Among the immediate items for work are conversion of pelagic, or midwater, trawl fisheries to electronic monitoring with shoreside sampling, an integrated monitoring plan for fixed gear that combines electronic monitoring, shoreside sampling and at-sea coverage as needed, and optimizing the size and composition of the fixed gear observed and electronic monitoring.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

10/16/2019 - 10:00am