Feel free to print this letter and add a place for signatures and send it off to your representatives or the ones listed on the letterhead. W.
November 12, 2012
To: Governor Sean Parnell
Senator Lisa MurkowskiSenator Mark Begich
Congressman Don Young
Subject: Restructured North Pacific Observer Program and 2013 Deployment Plan
Dear Alaska Leaders,
In 2010 the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) approved restructuring the North Pacific Observer Program. A final rule to implement the program is scheduled for early December publication. The undersigned members of the fishing industry cannot support this program that doubles costs, reduces coverage in high volume fisheries with substantial Chinook and halibut bycatch, and fails to provide a workable monitoring system for small vessels.
We are willing to pay our fair share of observer coverage costs and recognize that at-sea data is needed for conservation and management of the resource. We are concerned about salmon and halibut bycatch and believe fisheries with high bycatch must be the priority for observer coverage. We believe at-sea data can be collected from Alaska’s previously unobserved, community based vessels without causing fleet consolidation, job loss, or disruption of business operations. We have identified electronic monitoring as the tool that works for the small, fixed gear boats.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has consistently ignored the concerns of fishermen most affected by the program. NMFS is ready to implement a plan that reduces coverage in high volume fisheries with substantial Chinook and halibut bycatch, doubles the cost of an observer day relative to current levels, assigns over half the observed trips to vessels that account for less than 12% of the catch, and places the largest economic burden on the 1,300 small boats that operate out of Alaska’s coastal communities.
NMFS has provided insufficient opportunity for public comment on the 2013 observer deployment plan, no specificity and therefore no opportunity for comment on deployment logistics for small boats, and little to no analysis of logistical costs imposed on individual fishing businesses.
The undersigned individuals cannot support full implementation of the restructured observer program as proposed for 2013. We request your assistance in holding NMFS accountable for addressing stakeholder concerns prior to implementation of the restructured program or, at minimum, prior to deployment of observers on the small fixed gear vessels assigned to the “vessel selected pool.” Our concerns are detailed in the attached document.
Thank you for your support of Alaska’s coastal fishermen.
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Concerns with the Restructured Observer Program and 2013 Deployment Plan
A final rule to restructure the North Pacific Observer Program is scheduled for early December publication with implementation in January 2013. The 2013 Observer Deployment Plan was revealed in October 2012 after observer contracts had been signed, allowing only minimal opportunity for public comment and only minor revisions. Deployment details for small vessels still have not been revealed, effectively preempting public comment. Despite active and informed participation by Alaska’s coastal fishermen, the restructured program in general and the 2013 Deployment Plan in particular fail to meet resource objectives, control costs, or minimize impacts to Alaska’s small fishing businesses.
Throughout the two-year process to restructure the North Pacific Observer Program, fishermen have consistently advocated for:
· Establishing observer coverage levels on a fishery specific basis with emphasis on high impact bycatch fisheries;
· Incorporating deployment strategies that maximize cost effectiveness;
· Providing small vessels with electronic monitoring as an alternative to human observers concurrent with program implementation.
The Council has heard these concerns and often endorsed them. In October 2012 the Council recommended the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) amend the 2013 Deployment Plan to prioritize coverage in bycatch limited fisheries and to do so by reducing observer assignments in the “vessel selected pool.” The Council also requested NMFS provide a cost accounting report and a strategic plan for implementing electronic monitoring, but did not tie these requests to the 2013 Deployment Plan. Throughout the restructuring process, the Council has deferred to NMFS to address concerns raised by stakeholders instead of engaging in the normal process of identifying alternatives and incorporating stakeholder input to develop workable solutions. The result of this unusual process is that NMFS has not been held accountable for addressing concerns prior to implementation.
While we support the Council’s October 2012 recommendations, we need assurance that observer coverage will be re-prioritized to high bycatch fisheries, that program costs will be controlled, and that observers will not be deployed on small vessels until deployment details are revealed, analyzed and resolved, and electronic monitoring is available as an alternative to human observers.
More specifically, our concerns with the 2013 deployment plan are the following:
1. Equal probability of deployment—the deployment plan assigns all fishing trips with an equal probability of observer coverage—whether the trip is taken by an 80 foot vessel that harvests hundreds of thousands of pounds or a 42 foot boat harvesting 500 pounds. As a result, over 50% of the observed trips will be assigned to small fixed gear vessels that account for less than 12% of the groundfish and halibut harvested off Alaska. Shifting deployment to small fixed gear boats reduces coverage on high volume and high bycatch fisheries—most notably Gulf pollock fisheries that account for Chinook bycatch. The Council’s recommendation to “prioritize” coverage of PSC limited fisheries restates objectives NMFS has ignored to date. While we support the Council’s recommendation, NMFS’ response to the recommendation remains unknown—yet NMFS intends to implement the program in two months.
2. Failure to contain costs— In October 2012 fishermen learned that the deployment plan increases the cost of an observer day from the current $467 to approximately $1,000. The deployment plan emphasizes a random deployment approach to obtain unbiased data and does not sufficiently consider alternative stratified sampling approaches that could provide unbiased data in a more cost effective manner. Doubling the costs halves the number of observer days and undermines bycatch management objectives that are vitally important to Alaska’s fisheries. The Council has requested a detailed cost accounting but has taken no action to control observer coverage costs in 2013.
3. No alternative to human observers for the small boat fleet—Stakeholder testimony and Council motions for the past two years, including the Council’s May 2011 comment on the proposed rule, requested an alternative to human observers for the small boat fleet. Electronic Monitoring (EM) was identified in EA/RIR as the alternative that minimizes impacts to the small boat fleet. In Alaska, EM project collaborators specifically designed a pilot program in partnership with NMFS to evaluate EM in the halibut and sablefish fisheries to ensure EM would be operational in 2013. Yet the restructured observer program fails to provide this alternative and makes no commitment to ever providing an alternative to human observers. NMFS has not devoted the necessary resources to provide a viable alternative to human observers despite three years of notice and good faith industry cooperation.
4. Definition of a fishing “trip”--The definition of a fishing trip still allows “gaming” of the system. Cod vessels that deliver to tenders will be able to complete an entire season before ending a “trip,” since trip is defined as a shore-side delivery. As a result, vessels not selected for observer coverage on their first trip can deliver off-shore to tenders until the season ends and thereby avoid coverage for the entire season. The definition also still lacks quantity of gear set or fish harvested, which allows a vessel to fish for one day in a non-productive area, satisfy the observer “trip” requirement, drop off the observer and then join the rest of the fleet to fish in areas with higher catch and, of more concern, bycatch.
5. “Vessel selected” boats have 100% coverage for two or three months-- Stakeholders have repeatedly commented that the proposed requirement for boats in the “vessel selected” pool to carry observers for all trips during a three months period is overly burdensome and inequitable, particularly when compared to "trip selected" vessels that have a 13% probability of being selected one trip at a time. The Council’s recommendation to reduce the requirement to two months still assigns the most burdensome observer requirements to the smallest fixed gear boats. Until electronic monitoring is available as an alternative to human observers, observers should be assigned to small boats on a trip by trip basis.
6. No Logistical details for the “vessel selected” pool---Logistical deployment details for the “vessel selected” pool still have not been revealed, hence the industry has not been able to evaluate or comment on these critical and potentially costly provisions. Potential costs include room and board for an observer between trips and insurance to protect against liability. These costs have never been analyzed. While logistical details are specified for vessels in the “trip selected pool” (over 57.5 feet), the deployment plan directs fishermen in the “vessel selected pool” to work with the observer contractor to resolve logistics. The selected observer contractor is based on the East Coast and has no prior experience in Alaska.
Again, we cannot support deployment of observers in the vessel selected pool until these concerns have been addressed by NMFS. We are willing to pay the observer fee in 2013 and we are willing to work with the agency to resolve the concerns identified above.
Keep yer head down and yer flippers wet.