Fishermen, councils want lid on data

Exemption from Freedom of Information Act sought for bycatch info, observers' recordings

Posted: Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Federal councils and the groundfish industry want to put further limits on the public's ability to gain information about fishing in federal waters.

For example, the nation's eight regional fishery management council chairmen recently asked Congress to exempt from the Freedom of Information Act certain types of federal observer data that could allow people to learn about a certain boat's fishing activities. This data could include bycatch or video recordings collected by trained observers on fishing boats.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is also considering proposing some changes to the same law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, to clarify "what we mean by confidential information," said Sue Salveson, Juneau-based sustainable fisheries division chief for the agency's Alaska regional office, on Tuesday.

The federal fishing law is up for reauthorization by Congress this year.

Federal observers are paid by the industry and stationed on large fishing vessels to record information about fishing locations, catch size, bycatch and marine mammal interactions for regulators.

The wide effort to clamp down on federal observer data was largely triggered by efforts in 2002 by Oceana and the Ocean Conservancy to learn the exact locations where fishing boats in the Aleutians were hauling up coral and sponges, regulators and industry representatives said Tuesday.

The fishing industry also wasn't pleased about a 2002 FOIA request by the Seattle Times to obtain safety records for individual fishing boats collected by federal observers, according to Nicole Kimball, an analyst with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

In the former case, the trawling industry fought the environmental groups' FOIA request for detailed bycatch records in federal court, contending that releasing the information would violate their trade secrets.

The groups ultimately withdrew their request, after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took dramatic action to protect coral and sponge beds in the Aleutians.

In the Seattle Times case, the National Marine Fisheries Service had plans to pursue a FOIA exemption to limit release of the information, according to council records. The status of the FOIA request was not available by press time Tuesday.

"What we are trying to impress on people about the observer data is that the public has the right to know," said Jim Ayers, Pacific region director for Oceana.

Limiting public access to observer records "hides the data about bycatch. In our view, that's wrong," Ayers said.

Federal law isn't totally clear on what information is exempt from the FOIA law, said Kimball, with the North Pacific council.

"It's the details that are the problem," she said, adding that the 2002 FOIA requests "kind of brought the issue to the forefront."

The fishing industry is particularly concerned now about the public's future ability to obtain video recordings of activities on fishing vessels.

Federal regulators are planning to increase the use of electronic vessel monitoring devices, such as video cameras, in place of trained human observers on fishing boats.

Giving that information to the public is "like inviting someone into your house," said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Databank.

For example, fishermen don't want to see pictures of a fishing boat accident, such as entanglement with a sea lion or sperm whale, "on the front page of the New York Times," Bonney said.

Federal law already contains significant limits on the information collected by federal observers releasable under the Freedom of Information Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, for example, doesn't let the public know specific locations where individual fishing vessels are hauling up their fish.

That provision is intended to protect fishermen's trade secrets.

Instead, the fisheries service groups federal observer data into large geographic blocks of 10 square nautical miles.

Also, if three or fewer boats fished in a block, the agency doesn't provide any public information about fishing activity in that block.

One environmental attorney said the restrictions make it difficult for the public to track what regulators are doing to address fishery problems like bycatch.

The umbrella for federal data that are considered secret is growing bigger and bigger, said Janis Searles, an attorney who works for Oceana in Portland, Ore., and was involved in the FOIA battle over coral and sponge bycatch in the Aleutians.

"It's troubling for public resources in the environmental realm," Searles said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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