Wednesday, May 21, 2014

NOAA Fisheries Observer Program Reforms Scrutinized

Federal fisheries regulators are drawing criticism for new reforms to protect independent monitors of domestic commercial fishing fleets.

Both the Association for Professional Observers and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said in a statement issued this week that these reforms are weak and will not solve existing systemic management problems in observer programs. They allege that under a system set up by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the fishing fleets can compromise verification of catch limits, bycatch of protected species and violations such as shark-finning and marine pollution.

Fisheries observers accompany commercial fleets working in 47 different fisheries in the United States and International waters. They are not federal employees, but work for companies under contract to NOAA that do not provide guaranteed on-the-job protections.

In a complaint filed jointly in late 2011 by APO and PEER, fisheries observers from the Southeast US said they are discouraged from reporting violations, subjected to unsafe conditions, pressured about the integrity of data they collect and vulnerable to reprisal through blackballing or being assigned to arduous “punishment trips.”

Responding to that complaint, NOAA did a formal investigation and in early 2013 pledged to adopt nine reforms, including a “uniform, transparent and consistent procedure for collecting and reporting all potential marine resource violations” to law enforcement, stronger safety procedures, and a process for observers to file complaints.  These reforms are supposed to apply across the board to all seven major US observer programs.

Elizabeth Mitchell, president of APO, said the report is of little consolation to observers.  Without enforceable national standards, contractors and NOAA staff can still point the finger at each other with no accountability for observer welfare, professional standards and integrity of the data.

NOAA responded to an inquiry from Fishermen’s News on the matter, saying that NOAA takes seriously any safety concerns or other complaints raised by observers.

“There are several private companies who hold federal contracts to hire fisheries observers,” said NOAA spokesperson Keeley Belva.

“Recruiting and hiring decisions are made by these private observer provider companies and not NOAA. NOAA Fisheries supports a safe working environment and whistleblower protections for observers, “ Belva said. “NOAA Fisheries is moving forward with changes in a thoughtful and disciplined way to ensure fisheries observers have a safe work environment. We remain committed to ensuring that these policies are applied consistently in observer programs across the country.”

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