Following two successive annual increases for fishery observers programs, President Bush’s proposed FY 2005 budget cuts funding by nine percent nationwide and by more than 42 percent for New England– a reduction in funding that will undermine the ability of the observer program to generate the data needed to more effectively manage fish stocks.
The President’s FY 2005 budget proposes total funding of $22.5 million for fishery observer programs – compared to $24.7 million in FY 2004 and $13.8 million in FY 2003.
Hardest hit was the New England groundfish fishery. The FY 2005 request proposes a $4 million reduction of the $9.5 million in new funding the Republican-controlled Congress gave New England last year for observers. This reduction will affect the government’s ability to manage several fisheries including cod, haddock, flounder, and striped bass.
Using government observer data, Oceana estimates that between 1.4 million and 2.4 million pounds of striped bass were caught and discarded in the Northeast trawl fishery between May 2002 and April 2003. A precise number of striped bass lost is not possible without funding for additional observers.
“We need more eyes on the ocean and the Bush proposal suggests we look the other way,” said Ted Morton, federal policy director for Oceana. “The President’s budget request undermines key observer programs. Fishery managers need better data to develop measures to reduce bycatch and to rebuild depleted fish populations.”
Fishery observers are scientists who collect important information about fishing practices by accompanying commercial fishermen at sea – the scientific “eyes” on the ocean. On-board observers collect information about what is caught at sea, including what is thrown back or brought to the dock.
“Even with the few observers currently in place,” Morton added, “we’ve already learned that in some fisheries, threatened and endangered sea turtles are being caught at a much higher rate than originally estimated by the fishery managers. We hope that Congress continues to understand that everyone – including commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen and the environmental groups -- will benefit from increasing the number of observers and having more complete data on which to base our policies.”
Oceana is recommending that Congress provide a total of $34.3 million for fishery observer programs in FY05 – approximately $12 million more than last year. Oceana’s key regional recommendations include:
* An additional $5.5 million above the President’s request to restore the New England groundfish observer program to its 2004 funding level, and to provide dedicated funding for observers in the herring fishery;
* An additional $4.5 million above the President’s request to provide more Atlantic Coast observers, particularly in the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery (swordfish), which encompasses the entire eastern seaboard and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and the squid/mackerel/butterfish fishery in the Mid-Atlantic; and
* $600,000 to create a new observer program for the red snapper and grouper longline fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
For the more than 300 fisheries managed by the federal government, there are less than 30 observer programs, most of which only provide limited coverage. Unpublished agency estimates put the cost of fully funding observer programs at $50 to $100 million annually.