ANCHORAGE - After more than a decade of discussion and dickering, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council approved sweeping changes to its observer program at its October meeting to now include all vessels longer than 40 feet.
The new observer regime, set to be funded with a fleet-wide, 1.25 percent ex-vessel fee beginning in 2013, will shift control of observer deployment from boat owners to the federal National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS. After collecting the start-up fees for a year, the additional observers will be deployed in 2014.
Trained observers record catch data and collect biological samples, in a program designed to monitor fishing behavior and estimate the removal of both targeted and non-targeted species from the fisheries to inform management decisions and harvest levels.
There are, on average, about 400 trained observers available to NMFS. Three classes to train an additional 75 observers will take place in coming months at either the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle or the University of Alaska Anchorage.
The greatest impact from the new rules will be on the halibut and sablefish fleet and Gulf of Alaska groundfish fleet, the majority of which are made up of vessels less than 60 feet in length and were not previously required to have any observer coverage. Under the existing program, only vessels longer than 60 feet were required to have a minimum of 30 percent observer coverage.
Vessels longer than 125 feet are required to have 100 percent observer coverage and they operate under the "pay-as-you-go" with a daily fee of about $400 or more per observer (some large catcher-processors must carry multiple observers).
Under the new program adopted unanimously by the council, the small boat fleet will foot the bill for about 76 percent of the program's total cost of $3.8 million in start-up funding. That was a disappointing decision for organizations like the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, which lobbied the council for a lower ex-vessel fee for halibut and sablefish boats.
The quota system for halibut and sablefish, known as IFQ, already requires quota holders to pay an ex-vessel fee to support costs of the program such as monitoring and enforcement. The fee is set at a maximum of 3 percent, but ranged around 1.5 percent during 2007 and 2008.
The IFQ fleet argued in public testimony that existing program fees and halibut quotas that have been averaging a 10 percent decline for the past couple years are already putting a strain on the small boat fleet. Many noted that another fee would likely come out of crew shares.
Almost everyone who gave testimony from the small boat fleet encouraged the council to pursue the implementation of electronic monitoring, both for reasons of cost and the logistical difficulty of carrying observers on small boats not accustomed to carrying extra passengers.
The 60-foot cutoff in the original regulations drafted in 1990 led to a class of boats known as "Super 8s" that were just less than 60 feet to avoid observer requirements.
In the Gulf of Alaska, for example, there are only 104 fixed-gear catcher vessels longer than 60 feet, according to the council analysis. There are 293 fixed-gear vessels between 50 feet and 59.9 feet, and 339 fixed-gear vessels between 40 feet and 49.9 feet.
Those 632 vessels, between 40 feet and 59.9 feet have never been required to carry observers - although halibut and sablefish vessels are regularly boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard for enforcement purposes - and their exemption from the program has long been known to present a huge gap in bycatch data and fishing behavior.
Also, for those vessels longer than 60 feet, the owners decide under the current program when to carry observers - another loophole the council has long recognized needed closing. The shifting of deployment decisions to NMFS is expected to correct the inherent bias in an owner-controlled system and provide a better picture of fishing activity and bycatch.
"This will allow the (NMFS) to control, and through the council process, where and when observers are deployed and make statistically reliable estimates on vessels and processing plants," said Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional director for NMFS. "It will provide the control and flexibility to address problems with bias we've noted in the past because it will remove the discretion of vessel owners and plant managers to choose when and where they have an observer."
As the council deliberated over a proposed 2 percent ex-vessel fee, the IFQ fleet suggested applying only half that, 1 percent, to the halibut/sablefish vessels.
In the end, the council revised the fee downward to 1.25 percent to cover the start-up funding, with about $460,000 to spare, for a total of $4.2 million. After debating whether to include boats less than 40 feet, the council punted and recommended NMFS not deploy observers on the smallest vessels for the first few years of the program.
In the name of an equitable system, the council did not provide for differing levels of fee structure based on vessel size or type of fishing operation.
Julianne Curry, executive director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, said the final council action averted a "worst-case scenario" for her membership. The association is a multi-gear, multi-species statewide organization representing about 75 vessels and 30 businesses. Thirteen member vessels are longer than 58 feet. Most are in the range of 32 feet to 58 feet, Curry said.
"It's very hard for them to swallow and they were looking to minimize the impacts to that fleet on the backs of reduced quotas and stocks, not just in Southeast, but Alaska-wide," Curry said. "However, this action is better than the worst-case scenario and a step in the right direction. Restructuring has been coming for a long time. We are all a part of this world. That doesn't necessarily mean that we all have to be happy with the outcome, or even fully accept the outcome. But things could have been a lot worse and we have a few years to work out the details."
Among those details will be the exploration of deploying electronic monitoring - as has been done successfully in Canada's British Columbia halibut fishery - and attempting to lower the burden on the fleets by pushing NMFS to provide some of the start-up funding.
The North Pacific is the only one of eight regions across the country where the observer program is fully funded by vessel owners.