June 18, 2020

Seeking to Protect Fishermen from COVID-19, Moulton Asks NOAA to Extend Waiver for At-Sea Monitors

SALEM, Mass. – Today, Representative Seth Moulton asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to extend a waiver that suspends the requirement that commercial fishing boats carry At-Sea Monitors.

“I understand the importance of At-Sea Monitors, but we can’t will the virus away by pretending everything is normal. Limiting travel and reducing exposure opportunities are the only ways to stop the virus and prevent a second wave. Putting At-Sea Monitors back on boats now is an unnecessary, life-threatening risk,” Rep. Moulton said.

Since late March, NOAA has suspended its requirement for At-Sea Monitors on the grounds that their presence on boats increased the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. On Friday, June 12, NOAA informed Moulton’s office that the suspension was ending. Commercial fishing vessels across the country could receive monitors as early as July 1.

At-Sea Monitors are people who ride commercial fishing boats to collect data in order to prevent overfishing and ensure regulatory compliance. They are hired by private-sector companies and follow the commercial fishing season from port to port across the country as the seasons change. Monitors typically ride on several different boats while they are in one location. Moulton believes NOAA has failed to lead by reinstating the monitors without a plan to do it safely.

NOAA will have a tough time making the case to fishermen that the transmission risk has decreased. According to The Washington Post, the same day that NOAA informed Moulton’s office about the end of the suspension, five members of its “Hurricane Hunter” research aircraft team tested positive for the virus. The positive tests caused several other team members at their Florida base to enter a precautionary quarantine for 14 days as the country enters hurricane season.

Age is a key risk factor for contracting the coronavirus, and many commercial fishermen are in the at-risk age groups. According to a study by the University of Fairbanks, the average age of commercial fishermen is on the rise. The study, which explored Massachussets' fishing rival Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, found that the average of commercial fishermen there has jumped from 40 to 50 in the last decade. Trends in Massachusetts are similar and have led Moulton, a Democrat, to work with Alaska Republican Don Young on legislation to get more young Americans into commercial fishing.

Some of the most severe outbreaks of coronavirus to date have occurred aboard ships, where social distancing is often impossible. Earlier this year, a coronavirus outbreak ravaged the Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt infecting more than 1,000 of the ship’s nearly 4,900-person crew of sailors and Marines. The breeding ground aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship that was the source of a major outbreak of the virus in February that killed 17 people and sickened about 20 percent of the boat’s passengers was such a fertile breeding ground for the virus that researchers used it as a case study to predict the virus’s spread in the world’s most densely-populated cities.

Commercial fishing has proven itself essential since the quarantine began. Consumer demand for fish skyrocketed after outbreaks at pork and poultry plants threatened the supply chain that puts food on American tables, and the cooped up country started exploring new foods to break up the monotony of staying home. A New York Times article in April reported:

“...At supermarkets and other stores, seafood purchases have set records. Year-over-year sales of both canned and frozen seafood were around 37 percent higher for the four weeks that ended April 19, according to data from IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

Some large supermarket chains closed their seafood counters for a while so their regular workers could help stock shelves that were emptying nearly as quickly as new cans and boxes could be unpacked. Still, fresh seafood -sales were up by about 13 percent in the same four weeks.”

A PDF of the letter is available for download here. The full text is as follow:

Dear Under Secretary Jacobs,

We are writing to respectfully request the continued waiver of At-Sea Monitoring (ASM) for the Northeast Fisheries. Extending the temporary suspension is critical to both protecting the health and welfare of fishermen who are working to sustain their operations and to maintaining our region’s seafood supply during the continued COVID-19 pandemic.

We appreciate the March 24, 2020 emergency action that was issued by NOAA in response to COVID-19, which provides the authority to waive ASM while maintaining conservation efforts and providing an ongoing supply of fish to markets. The emergency action was issued to protect public health and ensure the safety of fishermen, observers and others. Three months later, those same protections are still essential for crews and monitors as we have yet to develop either a vaccine or an effective treatment for the virus, and there is a high risk of COVID-19 transmission in close quarters.

We value NOAA’s efforts to maintain efficient monitoring systems that support the sustainability of the Northeast Fishery. ASM, however, is not a program that can be easily adapted to the social distancing protocols currently required to prevent the spread of COVID-19. As the pandemic continues, we question how monitors can be redeployed safely and effectively, particularly given the limited space on ships, demographics of the Northeast Fisheries—many fishermen are aged 55 and older—and transience of observers who often travel from region to region and ship to ship.

We urge you to continue to prioritize the health and safety of fishermen, their families and the communities surrounding the Northeast Fishery during the ongoing pandemic and extend the ASM waiver. This extension is both essential to human health and to sustaining the welfare of a regional fishing industry that has been significantly impacted by COVID-19.


Member of Congress

CC: Michael Pentony, Regional Administrator, NOAA Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office