Oceana today told the federal government it will sue over the National Marine Fisheries Service’s under-the-radar slashing of the at-sea observer program for Northeast commercial fisheries, many of which unintentionally catch and kill severely endangered North American right whales and sea turtles.
As a result of these severe cuts, the Atlantic dredge fishery for sea scallops, which catches and kills hundreds of threatened sea turtles each year, will no longer have any observer coverage at all in the very areas where it catches sea turtles.
“Fewer eyes on the ocean means less of the critical information we need to help New England’s deeply troubled fisheries to recover. This stealth attack on scientific data-gathering is the worst possible move at the worst possible time, and it violates federal law,” said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, Oceana’s chief scientist and senior vice president for North America. “We must stop the Fisheries Service from blinding New England’s fishery managers. Everyone – from the New England Fishery Management Council to President Bush’s U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy – agrees that observers are a cornerstone of good ocean management.”
Although there has not been any official announcement, Oceana has learned that since the start of this year the Fisheries Service has made severe cuts in the Northeast observer program, including firing 95 of the 120 Northeast observer contract workers. According to the reports, the number of observer days in the Northeast will plummet by up to 75%, from 10,000-12,000 days in 2005 to 3,000-5,000 days this year.
“If no one is reporting how many sea turtles and whales are being injured, caught and killed by the fishing gear, it could result in a commercial fishery unintentionally or unknowingly driving a species to extinction,” said Oceana senior attorney Eric Bilsky, who filed the letter of intent
Oceana’s letter of intent is addressed to Dr. William Hogarth, the Fisheries Service chief; his boss, NOAA’s Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher; and their boss, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez. Oceana has won both times it sued the agency in federal court on the observer coverage issue. The law requires Oceana to give a 60-day advance notice of its intent to file the new suit, concerning violations of the Endangered Species Act.
The observer program places trained observers on commercial fishing boats. Observers track the numbers of marine wildlife – dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and fish – caught by fishing gear and then thrown back into the ocean, injured, drying or dead. These discards are known as bycatch.
Independent scientific experts have recommended that, as a general rule, observers monitor at least 50 percent of commercial fishing trips to obtain accurate and precise estimates of bycatch of protected species like whales and sea turtles. With the recent cuts, only 5 percent of the groundfish fishing trips in the Northeast region will have an observer onboard this year, compared to 15 percent last year; the scallop fleet will have zero coverage in areas where they are most needed.