Council directs NMFS to modify new observer program

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council took up a new deployment plan for marine observers at its October meeting, asking the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, to conduct further outreach, clarify a few components and plan to review certain items after one year.

The 2013 annual deployment plan uses random sampling of two different pools — a trip-based pool and a vessel pool — to assign observers to fishing vessels. Those selected in the vessel pool are responsible for carrying an observer for 90 days, while those selected from the trip pool would carry the observer for one trip. The observers provide NMFS with data about the fish being caught, and take samples of the catch.

Testimony and action Oct. 6 was in regards to the partial coverage vessels in the two pools with random sampling.

NMFS Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division Director Martin Loefflad said that program is meant to provide good data about the fishery.

“We live to try and give you folks, and all of the folks that work with us, unbiased numbers,” Loefflad said.

Council members questioned the high cost of the program per observer day, as well as the need to use such random methods that don’t account for pre-exisiting knowledge about observers or the fisheries.

Council member Cora Campbell, Commissioner of Alaska Department of Fish and Game, noted that the observer data has a variety of uses, including in-season management and stock assessments in future years.

“I’d like you to explain why you chose to develop a deployment plan that ignores all of that and deploys observers across sectors at the same rate,” Campbell asked.

The answer was that everyone was considered equally, particularly as the new observer program seeks to secure baseline data about the fisheries.

Ultimately, the council passed a motion that recommended that NMFS attach a priority to monitoring some vessels over others, change the three-month observation to two months for the vessel selection pool, work with the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod catcher vessel trawl fleet to institute 100 percent observer coverage, and conduct outreach so that the industry has a better idea of the program and possible options to make it less difficult.

That trawl fleet relies on near 100 percent coverage for in-season management, and was willing to pay for the coverage. The council also asked that a provision for this be looked into for future deployment plans, so that it’s not a surprise change late in the process.

Trawl vessels in the Gulf of Alaska less than 125 feet in length are required to carry observers 30 percent of the time under the current management.

The changes came after recommendations from the council Advisory Panel, and significant public testimony from conservation groups and industry.

The Alaska Marine Conservation Council made a statement saying it thought the bycatch priority was a positive change.

The program has the potential to monitor more vessels than in the prior deployment plan, but the AMCC and others noted that the amount of coverage for trawl vessels with a high incidence of prohibited species catch, or PSC, would likely be lower than in the old program, which was contrary to conservation goals.

Brent Paine, from United Catcher Boats, testified about the need for coverage in the Bering Sea, where the co-op management relies on observer data to keep bycatch down and the fishery open.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Executive Director Linda Behnken said the council’s action seemed to try to address those concerns, but she didn’t know if it would actually improve the program when it is implemented in 2013.

The longline association represents smaller vessels, and has said that having an observer could prove difficult on the boats due to space constraints and other logistical issues.

Smaller boats between 40 feet and 57.5 feet in length overall, will be part of the vessel selection pool.

The program is funded by NMFS in 2013, and in subsequent years by a 1.25 percent fee on landings, but the cost came in high on the bids to provide observers, so the total observer days is less than hoped for.

The primary funder of the new program will be the halibut and sablefish fleet because its landings are more valuable than the trawl fleet. Trawlers longer than 125 feet are required to carry observers 100 percent of the time and pay for that cost on a per-day basis.

Council member Duncan Fields said developing a suitable program was much like searching for a car, in weighing the trade-offs of various aspects, and in the cost.

“This program’s got sticker shock,” he said.

The high cost means that the number of observer days is lower than many would like. There will likely be about between 4,000 and 4,500 observer days under the program, based on the contract awarded to the observer provider, but the exact number depends which vessels and trips are randomly selected for coverage.

The council also recommended that NMFS review a number of things after one year of the program, including gathering information on catcher vessels that act as catcher processors for part of the year, considering changes to how vessels are part of the trip or vessel pools, and reviewing the costs and possible efficiencies. The council also asked NMFS for a plan to pursue an electronic monitoring, or EM, option.

The council heard a report on electronic monitoring, which is still in a pilot program phase with voluntary participation. For now, the goal is to see if electronic monitoring data matches observer data before EM can be used in place of a human observer.

Commercial fisherman Darius Kasprzak, from Kodiak, said he though EM would offer a good option for providing more observation of the industry, particularly for the trawl fishery that has much of the bycatch of chinook salmon, halibut and tanner crab.

The observer program will be conducted by AIS Inc. That company has worked on smaller vessels out of New England in the past, but has not provided observers for Alaska fisheries.

10/11/2012 - 9:00pm