Feds Ordered to Reconsider Changes to Observer Program

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.