NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is making severe cuts to the Northeast Fishery Observer Program, including firing at least half of its staff, according to reports from program staff. These reductions will significantly hamper the agency’s efforts to manage and restore the region’s fisheries, many of which already are on the brink of collapse.
According to the reports, the number of observer days in the Northeast will drop from 10,000 days in 2005 to 5,000 days this year. A full 100 of the 120 Northeast observer contract employees will lose their jobs -- many have been fired in just the past week. The Northeast Observer Program permanent staff will be cut in half, from 12 federal employees to six.
The observer program places scientifically trained observers on commercial fishing boats to record what is caught and what is kept. Observers also track what marine wildlife is thrown back into the ocean, dead or dying – this is called “bycatch”. The use of observers has been highlighted by the agency and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy agrees that observers are the most reliable method to collect basic information about fisheries.
“This is the wrong direction for the agency to be moving in with its regional observer work. Modern ocean management relies on the critical information provided by fisheries observers. Severe cuts in the number of observers and observed fishing trips will mean New England’s fishery managers will not receive the basic information they desperately need to properly oversee regional fish and wildlife populations,” said Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President for North America.
“The irony is the New England Fishery Management Council has recently taken steps to improve the use of science in its fishery management system, particularly the herring fishery. Now, the federal agency seems poised to undercut the progressive steps the Council has taken by giving them significantly less data,” Hirshfield added.
Independent scientific experts recommend that, as a general rule, observers monitor at least 20 percent of commercial fishing trips to obtain accurate and precise estimates of bycatch. The percentage should be even higher if protected species, like dolphins or sea turtles, are at risk. Following the reduction in funding, only 5 percent of the groundfish fishing trips in the Northeast region will have an observer onboard this year. According to the regional program, last year’s coverage level was 10 to 15 percent.
Alarmingly, the Atlantic scallop fishery, which catches hundreds of threatened sea turtles each year will have close to zero observer coverage in most of the region, with the few observed trips concentrated on a special fishing area south of Nantucket.
In response to appeals from Oceana and the herring industry, the New England Fishery Management Council in January adopted measures for the herring fishery, which relies on 20 percent observer coverage of herring trips to account for bycatch. The Council recommended this management approach due to concerns about bycatch of overfished haddock in herring gear. Reports indicate that this fleet, too, will only have about 5 percent coverage this year.
“This decision is going to hurt fishermen in the long term. Observers are a key element of our nation’s best managed fisheries. Without the vital information observers obtain, fisheries managers cannot effectively do their jobs and the future of the region’s fisheries will continue to be jeopardized,” said Gib Brogan, Oceana’s Campaign Projects Manager based in Mystic, Connecticut. “It is imperative that we put more eyes on the ocean – not less.”