The temporary waiver was announced on March 26 by Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional director for NOAA Fisheries, who said the emergency rule was granted consistent with the agency’s authority under certain circumstances, in this case because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) had urged emergency action to exempt them from carrying observers on their commercial fishing vessels because of lack of space allowing for adherence to precautionary guidelines issued to avoid spread of the virus, which has sickened, and in many cases caused the deaths of thousands of people worldwide. Federal, state and local guidelines are for everyone to keep a six-foot space between themselves and others, wash hands frequently and to wipe down frequently all commonly used surfaces.
“All we need is for one of those observers to be a virus carrying vector that infects the crew and skipper, who infect people in the processing plant and their families and the whole industry is shut down—along with a community where access to health care is extremely limited,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of ALFA.
The limited duration waiver for observer coverage in the partial category fleet was based on four factors, including limitations on available air travel in Alaska, particularly to remote communities, due to increasing concern about the COVID-19 pandemic.
NOAA also cited the absence of Alaska Marine Highway System service as an alternative travel method, limitations on intra-state travel, including local shelter-in-place restrictions, which direct self-quarantine practices for anyone traveling into remote communities, and the ongoing need to conserve limited observer capacity and coverage capability for other vessels and processing facilities participating in the full coverage category.
The emergency order dictates that through April 9 vessel owners or operators with vessels in the partial coverage category have to log each fishing trip into the Observer Declare and Deploy System and otherwise comply with applicable regulatory and other requirements.
During the waiver period, Balsiger said, NOAA Fisheries would evaluate the impact of the waiver on the conservation and management of the affected fishery resources and might make adjustments to the fishery and catch accounting system in the future.