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Fishing groups protest expanded observers program

Posted: November 29, 2012 - 1:00am

KETCHIKAN — Alaska fishing groups want the state’s congressional delegation to intervene over a federal program that will put observers on a portion of commercial halibut boats next year.

The Ketchikan Daily News reports 13 groups sent a letter to the governor and Alaska’s congressional delegation seeking assistance.

The new North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program was approved Nov. 20 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Starting Jan. 1, biologist observers will be placed on some of Alaska’s 1,300 small commercial halibut and sablefish boats to collect harvest data.

The observer program has been around since 1990 for the large catcher and catcher-processor vessels in Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska fisheries. Data collected is used to manage fisheries.

Representatives of the small-boat fleet, including Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and the Seafood Producers Cooperative, contend NOAA Fisheries ignored fishermen’s concerns with the expanded program. Fishermen are worried about the absence of logistical details, said Dan Falvey, a Sitka-based commercial sablefish fisherman.

“A lot of Alaska fishermen are sitting here saying this program, which is scheduled to start in a month, is extremely onerous for the small community-based boats and doesn’t contain the logistical detail that we need to know — and didn’t have input on — in order to minimize the impact on our businesses,” Falvey said.

The new program will include commercial boats under 60 feet. For 2013, vessels under 40 feet will remain exempt.

Vessels and processors will pay observer-coverage fees equal to 1.25 percent of the value of their groundfish and halibut.

Some vessels will be assigned to a “trip selection” pool and will be required to inform the agency at least 72 hours before departure of a fishing trip. NOAA Fisheries will randomly assign observer coverage to vessels for single fishing trips.

In a “vessel-selection” pool, boats randomly selected by NOAA Fisheries will be required to take observers for every trip occurring in a specified two-month period.

Fishing representatives said they would have preferred phased implementation of the expanded program. More than 50 percent of the observed trips will be on small boats that account for less than 12 percent of Alaska’s overall groundfish and halibut harvest, they said.

They also contend the new program should have included the option of electronic catch monitoring used in Canada, which is far more cost-effective than human observers, Falvey said.

“We found that the current technology is widely adaptable and reliable on Alaska’s small boats,” he said. “It’s accepted by the operators of the boats and doesn’t appear to be too intrusive.”

NOAA Fisheries’ Martin Loefflad said electronic monitoring may not be able to gather data that human observers can, such as weight and length of fish.

Deployment plans were purposely left flexible because regulations are hard to change, he said. The agency has committed to annual review of deployment plans by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“So it will be on the radar every year, and the ability to adapt and grow is kind of built into it,” he said.

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