New England Fisheries

Every Fish Counts

Photo credit: Dieter Craasmann.

Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council voted to reduce observer coverage for groundfish sector vessels to 13 percent for the 2016 fishing year. To better appreciate what this number – and its consequences – means, a little background on observer coverage in New England is helpful.

Currently, observer coverage in the groundfish industry is divided into two programs: the New England Fishery Observer Program (NEFOP) and the At-Sea Monitoring Program (ASM) – but it was not always this way. The ASM program was created when New England’s groundfish fishery transitioned to a catch share program in 2010. Regulators decided then that this system would require improved monitoring to report and verify catch, and rather than employ costly NEFOP observers (who are responsible for more advanced data collection such as biological sampling), at-sea monitors would conduct more “basic and focused” data collection at a reduced cost.

Using catch estimates from observer trips and some advanced statistical formulas (feel free to research those on your own), NOAA Fisheries is responsible for setting the overall percentage of groundfish trips that require observer coverage. This is to ensure that the results meet statutory requirements and allows the agency to fairly characterize the overall catch—observed and unobserved trips. The 13 percent figure that the Council recommended last week refers to the overall percentage, encompassing both programs. Breaking this figure down, 9 percent of trips would be monitored under the ASM program and 4 percent would be monitored under NEFOP.

The NEFMC’s recommendation represents a dramatic decrease from the current overall observer coverage, which is at 24 percent (20 percent ASM; 4 percent NEFOP). But, as Gib Brogan of Oceana tells the Boston Globe, it’s an even larger decrease from what NOAA Fisheries earlier determined the overall percentage of coverage in 2016 needed to be – a much higher 41 percent!

As you can tell, these numbers aren’t even in the same ballpark – so, how did the Council decide on 13 percent? They used the same data that NOAA Fisheries used to produce the 41 percent recommendation, but decided to use a different statistical formula. Same data, different formula, and a two-thirds reduction in observer coverage  – it’s no wonder the Council is so often accused of making decisions to best suit industry desires.

And this issue is hardly theoretical. What’s really at issue here is the relationship between a decrease in observer coverage and the recent quota cuts – particularly for Atlantic cod.

Compounding an already dire problem

Recent cod assessments indicate Georges Bank and Gulf of Maine cod stocks are at historic lows, commercially collapsed. In response, the NEFMC voted to reduce Georges Bank cod annual catch limits (ACLs) from 1,787 metric tons to 608 metric tons – a cut of 66 percent. Because Gulf of Maine cod – based on one year of data! – showed some response to the recent effort cuts by not continuing to decline, the NEFMC increased that quota slightly but still only to a miniscule 280 metric tons.

These low quotas demand observer coverage. Low quotas in a fishery that uses otter trawls to indiscriminately catch lots of fish means that the cod discards, not landings, are likely to be the largest component of the cod catch. If 87 percent of groundfish trips are unmonitored, the odds of obtaining accurate catch data are greatly reduced.

At-sea monitors are essential for understanding what fishermen are catching, what they are discarding, and the amounts of each. Every fish counts when populations are at 1-5 percent of their target levels. The ASM program was established because managers recognized the need to closely monitor sector quotas. If monitors are not on board, we cannot possibly collect the data needed to help New England’s famous cod fishery recover and become sustainable, and it will slip further and further toward potentially irreversible decline.


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