The National Marine Fisheries Service has finalized the rules for its new shipboard observer program, but with less than two months before the program begins, NMFS still hasn’t revealed how it will implement the program.
That uncertainty worries small-boat fishermen whose boats will carry observers for the first time.
“We are at this point focused on trying to make the 2013 deployment plan … something we can live with,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
Earlier this month, the longline association was among the signatories of a letter urging NMFS to make changes that will help small-boat fishermen cope with the new program.
Starting Jan. 1, boats as small as 40 feet will carry human observers for the first time. That raised concerns about where those observers can fit aboard boats with limited space.
When regulations were being drafted, NMFS pledged to develop a camera-based system that could stand in for human observers on these small boats. That program has been slowed by technical problems and is years away from full implementation.
“We thought all the way that would be a reasonable alternative,” Behnken said of the camera system, formally called electronic monitoring. “With their current projections of (electronic monitoring) development, it's at least 5 years in the future, and we can't live with that.”
Behnken’s view is echoed by the Alaska Trollers Association, the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, United Fishermen’s Marketing Association and numerous fishing groups.
The release of a final rule is ordinarily the last word in federal regulation, but fishermen have one final chance this time.
On Dec. 3, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council will open its winter meeting in Anchorage. In October, the council asked NMFS to implement the observer program in a way that will avoid harming the small-boat fleet.
The results of that request will be unveiled during the December meeting.
“In a best-case scenario, you would hope that reasonable thinking still has time to modify something that might be in need of modification,” said Jeff Stephan of the United Fishermen’s Marketing Association in Kodiak.
The association represents pot and longline fishermen and was among the signatories of this month’s protest letter.
Stephan said the small-boat fleet is hoping NMFS produces an implementation plan that contains costs and prioritizes boats that harvest more fish. The final rule published by NMFS makes no such distinction.
“I'm hoping that reasonable minds will prevail and someone will recognize that we have some reasonable suggestions,” he said.
If small-boat fishermen have their hopes pinned on the North Pacific Council, it could be a thin hope to hang on to.
The council’s published agenda does not include any action on the observer program other than the deployment plan’s debut.
If the plan isn’t what fishermen hoped for, it will be up to the council to change its agenda. If that doesn’t happen, fishermen will have to wait until next year’s deployment plan or take their chances fishing in the courtroom.