The Beacon

Court Requests Changes to the North Pacific Fisheries Observer Program be Reconsidered

A National Marine Fisheries Service observer checks the dimensions of a net and its catch. (Photo: NOAA Photo Library / Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Marine Observer Program)

Earlier this month, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) must reconsider recent changes to the North Pacific observer program. NMFS restructured the observer program in 2013 to increase observers on small hook-and-line halibut boats in the Gulf of Alaska fleet and randomize the deployment of observers on vessels, but the agency significantly underestimated the cost of these changes. In turn, the restructured program actually resulted in dramatic reductions in observer coverage—including less monitoring on some of the largest, most damaging trawl fishing vessels with the highest rates of halibut and salmon bycatch. NMFS must now look at its data from the restructured program and analyze whether the data is reliable and high quality because of the low rate of observer coverage.

“While the newly restructured program had the right idea to endeavor to provide expanded information about fleet activities, the actual implementation fell entirely short of that goal and actually reduced coverage on the large bottom trawl fleet known to have high rates of discards,” Oceana campaign manager and senior scientist Jon Warrenchuk said in a press release. “Trawlers are leaving the docks to catch thousands of tons of fish without having an observer on board—this is unacceptable.”

Oceana has worked actively over the past several years to encourage reductions in bycatch in the groundfish fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska.  If not properly managed, bycatch in these fisheries can have substantial negative effects on long-term ocean health and become unsustainable. Good information is essential to preventing adverse impacts—like overfishing and habitat destruction—and the best source of this information is data collected by observers.

Oceana filed an amicus brief in May 2013 in support of the plaintiffs, The Boat Company, that sued the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over the restructured observer program in the Gulf of Alaska. This brief provided perspective on the importance of the Gulf of Alaska ecosystem, the dangers of bycatch, and the importance of observer coverage to sustainable fisheries management and behavior. 

“We welcome Judge Holland’s decision to keep the observer program operating while ordering NMFS to consider what would happen to the reliability of fisheries data if the rate of observer coverage is too low,” Warrenchuk said. “We look forward to working with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to ensure the reliability of the fisheries observer program.”


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