New England Fisheries

Tell Fishery Managers: New England’s Groundfish Fishery Needs 100% Monitoring

An electronic monitoring camera on a fishing vessel. Image via NMFS.

The primary mandate of our federal fisheries law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is to prevent overfishing. To do so, managers must understand how much and where fish are caught. The at-sea monitoring program was established in New England’s groundfish fishery to accomplish this very task, but it is abundantly clear that the program fails to get the job done.

The New England Fishery Management Council is developing Amendment 23 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan in an effort to improve the at-sea monitoring program, and now is the time to let the Council know that New England’s groundfish fishery needs 100% at-sea monitoring. But while the public comment period is moving forward, final action on Amendment 23 faces some uncertainty in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 and Amendment 23

At the April Council meeting—the first conducted entirely via webinar due to social distancing guidelines—the Council voted to delay final action on Amendment 23. Originally slated for June, the date of final action is now unknown. Acknowledging that Amendment 23 will likely produce big change for the fishery, many on the Council stressed the importance of in-person public hearings. One Council member said, to paraphrase, that he wants to look people in the eye to deliver bad news.

While some of the concerns behind this decision are understandable, an indefinite delay is unwarranted. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic has led us all into uncharted waters, including tremendous economic struggles for many, but the Council must adapt and innovate. A remote public comment period does not have to mean that voices get left behind. It just might take a little more work to make sure that all those who want to comment on the amendment have the opportunity to be heard.

If the U.S. Supreme Court can hold arguments remotely—with RBG joining from her hospital room nonetheless! —the Council can hold a remote public comment period.

Lack of Accountability

The at-sea monitoring program was established in 2010 when the groundfish fishery transitioned to the sector system and quota-based management. At the time, managers recognized the importance of verifying catch at-sea—including discards—in order to set and enforce catch limits. Since then, target monitoring coverage levels have ranged from 14% to 40% of fishing trips and realized coverage often has not met these targets. As such, the majority of groundfish trips do not have an at-sea monitor on board to verify catch.

Inadequate monitoring coverage has created a lack of accountability in the fishery and the inability to reliably prevent overfishing. Analyses conducted during development of Amendment 23 confirm that the fishery requires “more comprehensive monitoring.” Amendment 23’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement specifies six uncertainties that exist in the current monitoring program, including:

  • Unreported and misreported catch by species and stock area,
  • Discrepancies in catch estimates between data sources,
  • “Missing catch” potentially causing retrospective patterns in stock assessments,
  • Differences in behavior of fishermen on observed trips vs. unobserved trips,
  • Incentives to misreport catch in a quota-based system, and
  • Opportunity for catch reporting conspiracy and collusion between dealers and vessels.

Statements made at Council meetings reinforce these uncertainties, particularly for overfished, low-quota stocks like Atlantic cod. In Spring 2018, there were reports of 2,000-3,000 pounds of illegal cod discards per trip, at-sea monitors not reporting discards, and vessels discarding large quantities of cod while targeting haddock. A year later, a former at-sea monitor shed light on the pressure that monitors face from vessel captains to turn a blind eye to questionable behavior.

It’s simple: New England’s groundfish fishery requires a robust monitoring program to prevent overfishing and bring accountability to the fishery.

The Future through Amendment 23

The only way to address the uncertainties with the current program is to remove bias and collect accurate catch data through 100% at-sea monitoring. While the economic cost associated with 100% monitoring is an important consideration, particularly given the industry’s economic burdens amidst COVID-19, the benefits derived from accurate catch data are much needed—and have been for some time—in the groundfish fishery where 11 stocks are overfished and 3 are subject to overfishing.

Accurate catch data will improve catch accounting, which allows managers to make more informed decisions about the fishery and allows scientists to make more accurate predictions about stock status—ultimately helping to rebuild overfished stocks. Also, 100% monitoring creates a level playing field between fishermen. With all fishermen held to the same standard, there is less chance of non-compliance, improving fairness and accountability in the fishery.

To some extent, 100% monitoring can mean cameras rather than human at-sea monitors. Electronic monitoring with cameras can help improve data quality and flexibility of the at-sea monitoring program as well as provide a more cost-effective option for some vessels. COVID-19 has revealed an additional benefit of electronic monitoring: the ability to continue collecting accurate data at-sea without a public health risk. With the current reliance on human at-sea monitors, NOAA Fisheries has had to issue monitoring waivers to comply with social distancing guidelines. These waivers are critical to protect the health and safety of fishermen and monitors, but the agency is also sacrificing essential data collection.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we should focus on creating a better management system, not just go back to where we were—and Amendment 23 can help.

The New England Fishery Management Council has already held two public hearings for Amendment 23 via webinar. One more is currently scheduled for tomorrow, Thursday, May 21. Written comments are also being accepted through June 30 and can be submitted to comments@nefmc.org. More information on the public hearings and how to comment is available here.


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