Increase in observer fees has people in the fishing industry questioning how their dollars are being spent

Jake Everich looks up at one of the electronic monitoring cameras installed on the winch of his trawler, the Alaskan. (Photo by Kavitha George/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

In Kodiak’s Dog Bay harbor Jake Everich is puttering around the galley of his trawler, the Alaskan. He bought his boat in March to fish for rockfish and pollock around the Gulf of Alaska. It’s just under 75 feet — a relatively small operation.

Everich is among the fishermen affected by a recent decision from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to increase observer fees from 1.25 to 1.65 percent of their catch value. When he sits down at the little galley table with his cup of coffee, he doesn’t seem worried the fee hike will put him under.

“I would say for my own business, no, it’s not that tight that,” he said. “You know, 0.4 percent isn’t gonna put me into bankruptcy.”

He’s clear that he doesn’t speak for all vessel owners when he says that. In an average season Everich’s gross is about half a million dollars, so the bump to observer fees means an extra $2,000 out of his profit margin.

Jake Everich’s trawler, the Alaskan, docked in Kodiak’s Dog Bay Harbor. (Photo by Kavitha George/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

It’s not great, but it’s not unmanageable, he says. For Everich, the bigger issue is how that money is going to be used. He says the data observers collect, and sometimes observers themselves, can be unreliable.

“When the program first started, yes, there was large emphasis on using that data strictly for management, better understanding of the fisheries resource, but I feel that at this point it has devolved into something that we pay for, but it doesn’t do anything.” he said.

Observers are neutral data-collectors who go along on fishing trips. They watch to make sure everyone is following regulations, but they also collect biological data and information about bycatch.

Trawl boats like Everich’s, along with some other gear types, are in what’s called the partial coverage sector. That means that they only have to carry observers some of the time. Processors and boats in the partial coverage sector pay into a pool that’s used to pay for observers. The amount each boat pays is a percentage of whatever their catch is worth. Depending on funding, observers cover one in every six fishing trips, but it’s random — you might get assigned an observer three trips in a row, or not at all.

Historically, the federal government has helped to fund the program, but that money is likely going away, says Bill Tweit, Vice-Chair on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. And without guaranteed federal money, the council has to look to the fleet for funding.

Tweit says the council doesn’t take increasing operating costs on fishermen lightly.

“We think there’s some ways of beginning to interject some cost containment in that and that’s the sort of thing we’re going to be working on over the next couple years,” he said.

The big cost-saving measure is electronic monitoring, or EM. EM systems use cameras and GPS systems, instead of a person, to collect data on board a vessel. They’re a lot more expensive up front when you consider installation and equipment, but Tweit estimates the daily cost of an EM system is roughly half that of a human observer.

“Electronic monitoring, as it moves from the developmental stage to fairly wide use — and you know, we’re at the point where it’s a well accepted, institutionalized program — we really see costs beginning to drop there as well,” he said.

EM systems are still quite new to the industry, and only in use on certain types of boats. Everich is part of a pilot program to test out the systems on trawl vessels.

Jake Everich stands in the engine room of his trawler, the Alaskan. The equipment to his right is part of the electronic monitoring system that collects data in place of a human observer. (Photo by Kavitha George/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Down in the engine room, he points out how the system is rigged to monitor the boat. For Everich, EM eliminates the downsides of a human observer— the electronics won’t get seasick for instance. And he thinks, EM can provide better fishery management data.

“I think cameras would do a better job,” he said. “You know, I don’t have any issue with that. I just wish that we could return to better management of the fishery.”

EM developers still have to work out some kinks before they system is as prevalent as Everich would like, but he’s already looking forward to a fully electronic observer system. In the meantime, the observer fee hike doesn’t kick in until 2021.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the observer fee hike costing Everich approximately $20,000 extra in an average year. The actual difference is approximately $2,000 extra.