Tendering report sought after possible 'gaming' exposed

The North Pacific Fishery Management program heard about the status of the new marine observer program at its Anchorage meeting.

After a preview of the marine observer program reports scheduled for June, the council created a taskforce to discuss electronic monitoring. Later, they asked for a report on a possible “gaming” situation in the Gulf of Alaska.

The council unanimously approved a motion made by Dan Hull asking the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, to update the Electronic Monitoring, or EM, strategic plan to include a broad list of tools and relative ranking of those tools and add several items to the implementation section. That motion also created the working group.

A full report on the strategic plan is scheduled for the council’s June agenda, as is a report on how the marine observer program is working so far. The council received an outline of each of those reports at its Anchorage meeting April 4.

The council’s new EM working group will be guided by the strategic plan once adopted, and look at various EM options and associated tradeoffs, and assist with pilot project development.

The council also asked staff for a report on a tendering issue in the Gulf of Alaska, where community members believe a feared gaming of the system under the new observer program has come to fruition.

Council member Duncan Fields, of Kodiak, made the motion asking for a discussion paper on that issue, but it was eventually amended to a report instead.

That report is intended to gather information, but not necessarily set the council down a path toward action.

Council member Sam Cotten made the motion to amend, which was supported unanimously.

Other council members said it was Cotten’s amendment that made the report tenable to them, as they were concerned about what has happened this year but did not want to see a far-reaching report.

Council member Bill Tweit said he was going to oppose the motion, but appreciated Cotten’s amendment making it simply a report, and hoped the information gathered would be specific to the event that’s occurred this year.

After the amendment, member John Henderschedt said he wanted the report to focus on whether tenders are considered fishing under the Magnsuon Stevens Act, the definition of a trip in the marine observer program, and the council’s authority to regulate tenders’ activities.

The tendering issue in the Gulf of Alaska is that this year, fish caught in Area 620, or the eastern half of the Gulf of Alaska, have been delivered to offshore tenders instead of the processing plants in Kodiak. Eventually, those fish go to processors in Sand Point and Akutan.

That means that the vessels are not logging additional trips that could be subject to observer coverage, and local processing activity is affected.

The Kodiak Island Borough and City of Kodiak sent a letter to the council about the issue, as it has had a significant impact on the community.

According to that letter, Kodiak has lost more than 14 million pounds of pollock and cod, which is equivalent to about $3.25 million in ex-vessel value.

Industry and community stakeholders had warned NMFS last fall that such gaming could occur under the definition of a trip that NMFS was using.

The Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association, or FVOA, sent a letter to the council in September, which said that the definition of the trip left room for gaming because it did not provide any performance standards.

After the council opted to pursue the tendering issue, FVOA Manager Bob Alverson said the issue is what they had thought could happen.

“Everytime you deliver, that should be one trip,” Alverson said.

Alverson also said he thought the council could correct the issue.

“I think the council is fair minded on this and they will correct that loophole,” he said.

In response to a question from NMFS Administrator Jim Balsiger, a council member, about possible gaming, NMFS’ Martin Loefflad said he couldn’t say whether or not gaming was occurring, but he had heard about that issue.

“Some people are doing it correctly, we’re hearing that others may not be,” he said.

Whether or not there was a pattern won’t be known until NMFS analyzes the program, he said.

Loefflad and Ferrin Wallace’s reports on the EM plan and observer program took longer than planned, in part due to many questions from the council and extensive public testimony. Loefflad provided the update on how the observer program is working this spring.

NMFS selected 29 vessels for the second round of vessel selection pool, in which vessels have an observer for all of their trips in a 60-day period. Of those, 17 carried an observer once the halibut season started March 23.

For May and June, 39 vessels were selected for coverage, and 9 have been released so far, Loefflad said.

On the trip selection side, Loefflad said that logging trips on the web, rather than by phone, is becoming more popular.

In public testimony, most people asked for a workgroup to look at EM issues, including Paul Gronholt from the Aleutians East Borough and Linda Behnken and Dan Falvey, from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

After the decision had been made to create a group, United Fishermen’s Marketing Association’s Jeff Stephan said he appreciated that step, but had also hoped to see other issues addressed.

And, Stephan said, he wanted pot gear included in testing EM, perhaps even for vessels longer than 57.5 feet. That fleet, which has minimal bycatch, could be a good testing ground, he said.

Alverson agreed with Stephen that EM could be an option for more than just the boats under 57.5 feet.

“If EM can help reduce costs, we think it should be available to all vessels,” Alverson said.

His members are primarily longer than the 57.5 foot threshold for the EM program so far.

Although most of the testimony focused on EM, the council also heard from a fisherman who had difficult with the vessel selection pool.

Zinon Kuzmin told the council that when he told NMFS he could not take an observer due to limited bunk space, he was given eight days to reconfigure his boat. Because that wasn’t possible, he wound up have someone sleeping on the floor, he said.

The council did not address that issue or other potential problems for vessel owners, but could do so in June, when it hears the full NMFS reports.

12/06/2016 - 12:09pm