North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program Sees Changes in 2015

The National Marine Fisheries Service held outreach meetings in Kodiak and Homer in December.

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Fishermen and NMFS representatives discussed the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer program.

The overall feeling at the meeting seemed to be discontent with a grain of salt. Many fishermen who attended voiced their frustration with the observer program in general. But, many also said that they understand what its purpose is. That sentiment is nothing new to Martin Lefled.

“I’m with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, based out of Seattle, and I’m the director of the observer program in Alaska for the federal fisheries,” Lefled said.

He says NMFS has received a lot of feedback and it’s listening.

“So, the council and NMFS recognized that something wasn’t working that the program has some flexibility to change,” Lefled said. “So, we’re changing it to the area that is working.”

Lefled says the greatest change will be to the way observers are placed on partial coverage category vessels. Starting in 2015, observers will be placed when a vessel is selected through the Observer Declare and Deploy System or ODDS.

In the past, large vessels with 100 percent coverage and vessels greater than 57 and a half feet fishing with trawl gear or hook-and-line fixed gear fell under what is called trip selection. Vessels between 40 and 57 and a half feet fishing with hook-and-line and pot gear were previously under vessel selection.

“So vessel selection was not working very well,” Lefled said. “So the change is that we’re going to treat all of those vessels just like we treat the bigger trip selection vessels, because that worked very well.”

So, all partial coverage category vessels that use trawl gear or are greater than or equal to 40 feet and use hook-and-line or pot gear will be in the trip selection pool.

Vessel owners and operators will be required to log each fishing trip onto ODDS at least 72 hour before departure. Then, they’ll be immediately notified if the trip has been randomly selected. If chosen, a NMFS contractor will provide the observer.

“And that’s going to fix the problem where previously, they were being selected for a two month period. So, the burden was very great,” he said. “So, we think we’ve made it more workable for the fleet so the impact of the observer coverage is going to be for just that trip that’s been picked. [There is a] relatively low rate so not that many trips will be picked. It will still be a burden, but just for a trip. And I think everyone can deal with a trip.”

The other main change to the program, Lefled says, is the rate for the larger vessels that are 57 and a half feet and greater is going up to 27 percent. So, about one in four trips will be picked.

The no selection pool comprises vessels fishing with hook-and-line or pot gear that are less than 40 feet, all catcher vessels of any length with jig, handline, troll, and dinglebar troll gear, and vessels that are conditionally released due to life raft capacity. Additionally, starting in 2015, vessels voluntarily participating in NMFS’ Electronic Monitoring Study will not be selected.

Malcolm Milne works with the North Pacific Fisheries Association. His group has been involved with testing and designing what he calls a reasonable and applicable electronic monitoring system. He says E-M could be a more economical alternative to a physical observer.

“The numbers are all over the board but it’s something like a thousand dollars a day for an observer on a boat – that’s what it’s costing the program,” Milne said. “We’re trying to get a system where we can bring those costs down and therefore provide more coverage across all the fisheries.”

Milne says he doesn’t foresee E-M replacing observers anytime soon. But, he says the program has potential; they’ve just got to work out the kinks.

“It’s still in its development stage- that’s for sure,” Milne said. “But, there’s been a lot of cooperation and a lot of frustration between the industry and the National Marine Fisheries Service, between getting the program running and what the goals should be and what direction we should be going with it. It’s a ways off.”

The idea of taking a camera instead of a live observer seemed to go over well with many fishermen in the room. But they still had questions about other facets of the program.

A few voiced concerns about an observer bumping an IFQ holder off a trip if there’s not enough room to carry both. Others worried that some observers don’t communicate enough with crews and write down complaints that they say aren’t entirely valid.

Chris Sylce of the Katrina M. had a suggestion for the program – allow tenders to transport observers on and off boats so they don’t have to be picked up on the docks.

“Where if the tenders could bring them to the grounds, we deliver to the tender, they get on their boat, we do a trip, they get back on the tender, they go back to town or they get on the other boat that’s coming to deliver,” Sylce said.

He thinks it would streamline the process, cause less hassle for some boats, and even out the playing field for others. He says it would be in the best interest of the program.

“And if they want to get their 24 percent coverage, this is huge, in my mind,” Sylce said. “Say I get selected for Trip 2 for an observer. Well, I [could] leave on Trip 1 and I just don’t go back to town. I deliver to a tender all winter. Technically, I do one trip all winter but I make 25 deliveries. So, I’m never going to have to take that observer because I never go to down.”

Martin Lefled says the council and NMFS are discussing the tender issue and are taking other concerns into consideration as well. But, big changes will only come after thorough research.

“We want to make sure the science has integrity,” Lefled said.

So, he asks fishermen to work with the program for another year as it develops more throughout 2015.