June 30, 2020

NOAA to Further Delay Return of Fishery Observers in Northeast US After All

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is delaying its requirement for several hundred Atlantic groundfish and scallop vessels to carry at-sea monitors and fishery observers for another month due to COVID-19-related concerns.

The change of direction, announced in an email sent to members of Congress, a copy of which was obtained by Undercurrent News, and later made available online, comes a little more than one week after NOAA declared vessels operating in the Northeast US again would be required to begin accepting the presence of the non-crew members on Thursday (July 1).

"Although NOAA Fisheries had announced plans to resume observer deployments on July 1, we recognize the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and as such, has required us to re-evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances," explained Katherine Dziedzic, in the legislative affairs team at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), in the email. "In response, NOAA Fisheries is extending the waiver granted to vessels with Greater Atlantic Region fishing permits to carry human observers or at-sea monitors through July 31, 2020."

The action is "consistent with the criteria described in the agency's emergency rule on observer waivers during the COVID-19 pandemic".

NMFS plans to begin redeploying observers and at-sea monitors on vessels fishing in the Northeast US on August 1, the email states. During the month of July, the agency "will continue to work with regional observer and at-sea monitoring service providers to finalize their observer redeployment plans, conduct outreach with industry, and finalize our internal programs and policies that will support the safe and effective redeployment of observers and at-sea monitors in the region".

The agency, in its email, continued to maintain the importance of the role observers and monitors play.

"Observers and at-sea monitors are an essential component of commercial fishing operations and provide critical information that is necessary to keep fisheries open and to provide sustainable seafood to our nation during this time," Dziedzic wrote, noting that the agency will continue to monitor all local public health notifications, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates.

"We are committed to protecting the public health and ensuring the safety of fishermen, observers, and others while fulfilling our mission to maintain our nation's seafood supply and conserving marine life," she wrote.

Pressure was building

Pressure was building this week on NMFS as it had received requests for further delay by multiple fishery management councils and lawmakers. NMFS had first removed its requirement for at-sea monitors and observers on the Atlantic Coast on March 22 and said, at the time, that it would consider further extensions one week at a time after.

Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced Sunday (June 28) that it was postponing the reinstatement of its observer requirement until Aug. 12 "unless otherwise revoked or amended". Canada's DFO had first announced its delay of the observer requirement on May 15.

Tuesday's email provides no comfort for US west coast harvesters, who have been dealing with observer requirements since the end of April when a brief twoweek delay expired, however. The agency has reportedly rejected multiple requests by individual vessels for exceptions.

Also, NMFS, on June 26, announced that it had identified multiple ports in Alaska where it was possible to deploy observers, including Dutch Harbor, Juneau and Sitka.

Leigh Habegger, the executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America, issued a statement on Tuesday to applaud NMFS for its action, but questioned why observers and monitors are still being required on the west coast of the US and in Alaska.

"There is no doubt that captains and crew along the eastern seaboard welcome this decision -- they won't have to choose between complying with the law and risking their lives," she said. "However, we urge NMFS to reconsider their requirements for fishing vessels in every other region to carry human observers onboard. This virus does not obey state lines or federal boundaries -- it infects rapidly and widely.

"We have yet to hear a valid explanation as to why one region continues to see relief through an extension of their observer waiver while the rest of the country's fishermen continue to risk their lives. It is unconscionable to extend waivers in one part of the country but not another," she said.

The data that matters

In a telephone press briefing held earlier on Tuesday by US representative Seth Moulton, the Massachusetts Democrat declared that, by not delaying the observer and monitor requirement, NOAA is "sailing into a hurricane" and forcing harvesters to choose between being in compliance and the lives of both their crew members and also families.

Moulton said he held a 30-minute call with NOAA on Monday in which the agency's officials explained their rationale for the decision was based on their observation that other parts of US society has been loosening up around its regard for the handling of the virus. The lawmaker noted that the trend NOAA noted has led to a spike in cases nationwide.

"I understand the importance of data and I understand why we have to get the catch data that at-sea monitors provide, but the most important data out there right now is the data about this once in a century pandemic and how many lives it's taking and how many lives we can still save," Moulton said.

"No one is going to look back 10 years from now and say, 'My God, this fish species went extinct because we didn't have the data from July 2020. But we could well look back a few months from now and say these fishermen or even these at-sea monitors would be alive today if we had been prudent about how they're used."

Among the multiple commercial fishing-related participants in Tuesday's call was Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, in Newport, Oregon, who noted how west coast fishermen received a waiver for only two weeks. She said NMFS, meanwhile, has ordered its own staff to comply with stay-at-home policies and canceled almost all fieldwork.

"Real leadership by example. Reminds me of our president," said Moulton in response to Mann. "This is what this administration is all about, preaching one thing and doing something differently."

Thomas Nies, executive director of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), identified a number of concerns in relation to the issue in his letter to NMFS, including one related to liability, as reported by Undercurrent.

"The council heard that vessel underwriters are explicitly excluding COVID-19 coverage from their policies," he wrote. "It is also not clear whether Jones Act injury provisions will allow a crewmember who is infected by an observer to sue the vessel owner. How these liability questions interface with observer provider responsibilities should be clearly explained."

Bob Vanasse, the executive director of Saving Seafood, a seafood advocacy group, also responded to NOAA's decision on Tuesday with a compliment and criticism.

"Given all of the facts that are available regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the current pandemic, I do not understand why it was not obvious to officials at all levels of NOAA sooner that this was the right decision," he told Undercurrent in an email. "Our members are grateful to NOAA assistant administrator for fisheries Chris Oliver for ensuring that the right action was taken. And we are extremely grateful to congressman Seth Moulton for taking the lead on this crusade, and to congressman Bill Keating for joining him in that effort."

By:  Jason Huffman
Source: Undercurrent News