Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Restructured Groundfish, Halibut Observer Program Begins in January

A restructured groundfish and halibut observer program, aimed at improving fisheries management and minimizing bycatch, commences in January with a two-month deployment for selected vessels rather than the initial three-month plan.

In a letter to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, sent just before the start of the council’s December meeting in Anchorage, James Balsiger, administrator of the Alaska region for the National Marine Fisheries Service, confirmed the change in the annual deployment plan.

Balsiger noted that NMFS has selected nine vessels from the vessel selection pool for observer coverage in January and February.

NMFS has also revised the annual deployment plan to increase observer coverage for vessels over 57.5 feet in length from 13 percent to 15 percent, and to lower observer covered from 13 percent to 11 percent for vessels under 57.5 feet. Vessels less than 40 feet in length are not included in the program.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council had asked NMFS to work with industry regarding additional observer coverage for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Island Pacific cod catcher vessel trawl fleet and for all trawl fleets in the Gulf of Alaska.

Balsiger said that consistent with current regulations, some catcher vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands trawl fishery for Pacific cod have voluntarily taken additional observers in the past to aide in their own efforts to manage prohibited species catch. Balsiger said that NMFS supports the industry proposal to carry an observer at all times in this fishery.

To enable trawl catcher vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod fishery to take observer coverage in addition to that required for the partial observer coverage category, NMFS asked that vessel owners or their designated representative send a letter to NMFS and procure an observer through one of five certified observer providers. Vessels in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands that agreed to terms set out by NMFS would get 100 percent coverage.

Fleets in the Gulf of Alaska seeking additional observer coverage would be considered on a case-by-case basis in 2013, he said.

An update on the observer program is to be presented in the federal fisheries council in April, with a review in June and another review in October, after which NMFS will present its observer plan for 2014.

The restructured observer plan has drawn concern from the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Alaska Trollers Association, Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, Seafood Producers Cooperative, the Southeast Alaska fishermen’s Alliance, United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the United Fishermen’s Marketing Association.

In a recent letter to Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state’s congressional delegation, they said the plan reduces coverage in high volume fisheries with substantial king salmon and halibut bycatch, doubles the cost of an observer day relative to current levels, assigns over half of the observed trips to vessels that account for less than 12 percent of the catch, and places the largest economic burden on the 1,300 small boats operating out of Alaska’s coastal communities.

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