Federal Judge H. Russel Holland has ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider recent changes to the North Pacific observer program regarding costs and coverage levels, while allowing the current program to stay in place.
In a decision handed down Aug. 6 in US District Court for the District of Alaska, Holland ruled that NMFS arbitrarily ignored the potential impacts of increased costs and lower observer coverage, and ordered NMFS to prepare a supplemental environmental assessment.
NMFS implemented the restructured observer program in 2013 with the stated goal of expanding the proportion of the Gulf of Alaska fleet that was observed and randomizing the deployment of observers on vessels.
However, those changes to the observer program and significant underestimate of costs of the program resulted in dramatic reductions of observer coverage on some of the largest trawl fishing vessels, which have some of the highest rates of halibut and salmon incidental to groundfish fisheries, which target pollock, cod, rockfish and other species. Bycatch in these fisheries has been an issue for years.
The court noted that in a previous environmental assessment prepared by NMFS that NMFS estimated that the 1.25 percent ex-vessel harvest value fee on groundfish and halibut would generate approximately $4.2 million, which was sufficient revenue to fund 9,027 days of observer coverage, assuming that an observer day cost would be $467.
The court noted that it was on Dec. 1, 2011, which was after the environmental assessment had been prepared, that NMFS became aware that the observer day cost had increased to $872.
Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska, said that NOAA is pleased with the court’s decision to uphold the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program, “a decision which ensures this critical fishery management program will stay in place.”
“While the newly restructured program had the right idea to endeavor to provide expanded information about fleet activities, the actual implementation fell entirely short of that goal and actually reduced coverage on the large bottom trawl fleet known to have high rates of discards,” said Jon Warrenchuk, campaign manager and senior scientist for Oceana, in Juneau, Alaska. “Trawlers are leaving the docks to catch thousands of tons of fish without having an observer on board – this is unacceptable.”
On May 30, 2013, Oceana filed an amicus brief in support of The Boat Company’s challenge of the restructured observer program in the Gulf of Alaska, to provide perspective on the importance of the Gulf ecosystem, the dangers of bycatch and importance of good observer coverage.
Captain Joel Hanson, director of conservation programs at The Boat Company, called Holland’s decision “an important step toward conservation of salmon and halibut resources and a healthier ecosystem.”
The lawsuit was filed by The Boat Company, whose legal counsel included Earthjustice, with The Fixed Gear Alliance as an intervener-plaintiff.
The Fixed Gear Alliance is a non-profit corporation comprised of vessel owners, operators and crew who used fixed longline or pot fishing gear to fish in the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska.