And the Beat Goes On

Mid water trawlers working off the coast of Rhode Island in Narragansett Bay in January 2012.

Despite over a decade of outcry from both the general public & multiple stakeholder groups within the fishing community, on this coming Thursday the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) will once again be discussing the seemingly never ending question of how to monitor and regulate the very controversial fishing gear known as a “mid water trawl.” Many countries including Canada, with whom we share the Atlantic herring resource, have banned the use of this gear.

How We Got Here:
After over four years of development, in June of 2012 NEFMC approved Amendment 5 to the Atlantic Herring FMP. A full year later in July of 2013, the National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS) “partially approved” or to be more accurate “mostly disapproved” the meaningful elements of Am 5. The elements disapproved were mandatory 100% monitoring, industrial funding of that monitoring, regulations on the dumping of catch and mandatory weighing of the catch.

Further complicating the issue is that over the years since the final debate, approval, delayed submission and then partial approval (aka disapproval) of Am 5, most of the decision makers that best understood the issues involved, most importantly the NMFS Regional Administrator, have been replaced by other individuals. Instead of just correcting flaws in Am 5, almost all of the issues voted on in June of 2012 are in some way being debated…again…AND THE BEAT GOES ON

Where we are today?
On Jan 14th the NEFMC Atlantic Herring Oversight Committee continued development of actions involving the disapproved measures of Am 5. Next up is this week’s NEFMC meeting. The following is my synopsis of the debates within this unusual combination of rule-making actions:

Industry Funding of Monitors:
A key element of Am 5 was the decision to require 100% monitoring. To accomplish this, Am 5 required the industry to pay for the difference between what the NMFS could afford to pay for and the 100% being required. NMFS disapproved this measure because there was no regulatory authority that allowed NMFS to collect money from industry.

To their credit, after disapproval of Am 5, NMFS proposed that their own staff do the work to develop a new NEFMC amendment that will create the mechanism needed to allow industry to pay for all or some of the required monitoring. If this “Omnibus Amendment for Industry-Funded Monitoring” was limited to just creating the mechanism needed it would be a great thing and the NEFMC could then just take a parallel course correcting Am 5. Unfortunately it’s starting to look like that is not the case.

NMFS has convinced the Council to include a process to set the amount of observer coverage in the new amendment. Wait a minute, setting observer coverage is a NEFMC policy decision and the Council voted to require 100% monitoring all the waaaayyy back in June of 2012. This was re-affirmed only a couple months ago in Newport, Rhode Island at yet another NEFMC meeting that was heavily attended by over 100 members of both industry and those demanding reform. At this meeting all agreed 100% coverage was what is needed in this fishery. All sides that came to the mic that day asked for it, multiple NEFMC members said it and even the press reported it. If 100% coverage is the goal, why is this developing omnibus packed with options less than 100%?…AND THE BEAT GOES ON

What is 100% Monitoring?
This seems like a simple question doesn’t it? 100% monitoring means that to go fishing the vessel must have an observer on board.

But what happens when an observer is not available? What if the observer is delayed or does not show up due to weather, traffic, scheduling mistakes, or a family emergency etc.? Industry representatives suggest that in these rare cases the vessel should be granted a waiver and allowed to go fishing. NMFS response is that granting waivers, if allowed, results in less than 100% coverage so is the requirement for 100%, or will less than 100% be allowed? From this point the debate is on a slippery slope, with advocates opposed to monitoring improvements driving even more holes into the debate. One has to ask, is this really an issue? According to past observer program data the answer is clearly NO. Let’s have a chuckle and call this a time consuming “red herring”.

Neither the members of the NEFMC nor the NMFS want to be the target of a political campaign, accusing regulators of being responsible for a vessel that has quota and wants to go fishing being tied to the dock. No one wants to be the bad guy, so the hamster wheel continues to spin…AND THE BEAT GOES ON

Dumping Regulations:
Another major issue that was disapproved in Am 5 was strict regulations placed on the wasteful practice of dumping fish over the side. Currently these vessels are allowed to dump lesser quality Atlantic herring, a wide variety of bycatch and anything that is left in the net at the end of pumping operations. At this week’s NEFMC meeting, the issue of dumping will be addressed within discussion of “Framework 4 the Atlantic Herring FMP.”

A few years ago a regulation was enacted to allow the mid water trawl fleet to fish in certain areas of the ocean closed for protection of groundfish. This regulation included 100% monitoring and strict regulations on dumping. All agree, and the data confirms, that these “Closed Area 1” (CA1) regulations have reduced the practice of dumping and are working as currently written (shocking isn’t it).

It seems clear that the solution to fishery-wide dumping reform is to expand the CA1 regulations to the whole fishery. But years of debate have resulted in politically hot button words such as “safety” being inserted into some of the options in Framework 4…AND THE BEAT GOES ON

What About this Week’s Meeting:
The good news is that the Omnibus Industry Funding Amendment and Framework 4 contain the common sense solutions I have suggested. The bad news is that without a doubt the industrial side of the herring industry will be trying to strip out, or at least water down, the good options to once again delay actual reform of the most dangerous gear ever to fish in our waters.

Hopefully the voting members of the NEFMC forward both of these actions to the next step in the process, leaving the good options in the documents. These options deserve to go to the public and be given full consideration as final regulations.

The one thing I can guarantee is that the recreational fishing community, the small boat commercial fishing community and the environmental community will continue to BEAT THE DRUM, demanding reform of the industrial mid water trawl vessels within the Atlantic herring fleet…AND THE BEAT GOES ON

Capt. Patrick Paquette is a recreational fishing community leader, a member of the Board of the Coalition For Herring’s Orderly Informed & Responsible Management (CHOIR) and serves on many advisory panels within the fisheries management system.


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