Under pressure, NOAA delays at-sea monitors for a month

Boston Statehouse

March 2020 land and ocean temperature departure from normal. (NOAA)

BOSTON (SHNS) – After facing significant pushback from elected officials, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration abruptly reversed course Tuesday and announced it will not resume sending observers out to sea on fishing vessels until at least August.

NOAA had been planning to revive at-sea monitoring in the Northeast on Wednesday after more than three months of suspending the practice, describing it as a key function to track fishery health. Late Tuesday afternoon, however, the agency said the evolving course of the pandemic “required us to re-evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances.”

A waiver exempting fishing vessels from their requirement to carry human observers or at-sea monitors will now remain in place through July 31, during which NOAA plans to conduct outreach with industry leaders and flesh out safety practices it will deploy when monitoring does return.

“As has been done throughout the rest of the country, it is the intent of NOAA Fisheries to begin redeploying observers as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so,” NOAA wrote in a press release. “While we intend to begin redeploying observers on August 1, we recognize that this public health crisis continues to evolve and changing conditions may warrant re-evaluating these plans.”

Massachusetts officials and commercial fishing representatives had been pushing NOAA for weeks to walk back its plans to start monitoring back up on Wednesday.

Earlier Tuesday — before NOAA changed its plans — both Gov. Charlie Baker and Congressman Seth Moulton warned that the July 1 target created unnecessary risks for fishing workers and for the observers themselves.

In a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service he penned “on behalf of the Commonwealth’s commercial fishing industry,” Baker urged NOAA to reconsider. Minimizing contact between crews and outsiders is a critical strategy to minimize COVID exposure, Baker said.

“NOAA’s decision to not extend the waiver and require commercial fishermen to accommodate observers effective July 1 is premature given the ongoing state of the pandemic,” Baker wrote. “This decision will increase risk to fishery participants, their families and communities; create anxiety among all involved; and may motivate further fishermen to cease their operations due to personal concerns.”

Moulton has been pushing for weeks for the agency to extend its waiver of observation. One day before the change was set to take effect, he convened a morning press conference to launch a more public case.

“You’re going to see people, many of whom are in at-risk groups for COVID-19, have to choose between complying with the law and risking their lives, complying with the law or keeping themselves and their crews safe,” Moulton told reporters.

NOAA officials first signaled in late May that, after halting the mandatory program on March 20, they intended to start it up again again on July 1 for northeast fisheries.

Monitoring, they said, plays a key role in conservation and sustainability efforts.

“Observers and at-sea monitors are an essential component of commercial fishing operations and provide critical information that is necessary to keep fisheries open and to provide sustainable seafood to our nation,” NOAA Science and Research Director Jon Hare wrote in a June 22 letter.

At the time, Hare told partner agencies and communities impacted by the decision that monitors would follow several steps aimed at ensuring healthy observation.

Those plans included deploying observers onto the same vessel or same port of origin to limit person-to-person contact, requiring monitors to undergo pre-trip health screening, and instructing them to self-quarantine for 14 days before their first deployment.

Concerns with the original plans also came from the industry, whose leaders argued that they did not have enough of a voice in determining the reopening process and that captains and crews would be forced to accommodate additional risks as the highly infectious virus continues to spread rapidly elsewhere in the country.

Both the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the New England Fishery Management Council wrote to NOAA to express concerns in recent weeks, saying that NOAA has not made a clear enough case for why monitoring needs to resume this summer or what impact there would be on fish stocks and catch limits if the tracking remained delayed.

“The Council understands that — under normal circumstances — observer
data provide important information for both monitoring the fishery and assessing fish
stocks,” NEFMC Executive Director Thomas Nies wrote in a letter on Friday. “These are not normal times.”

A Democrat representing many communities with significant fishing industries in Massachusetts’s 6th Congressional District, Moulton said he believes an indefinite postponement would be the best option for NOAA, given that many states outside the Northeast are experiencing surges in cases and that public health experts warn about a COVID-19 resurgence in the fall.

But even another month of pausing the program, he said, would give officials time to get a better sense of the risks attached.

“No one is going to look back 10 years from now and say, ‘oh my God, this fish species went extinct because we didn’t have the data from July of 2020,'” Moulton said. “We could well look back a few months from now and say, ‘these fishermen, or even these at sea monitors themselves, would be alive today if we had been prudent about how they’re used.'”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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