The new year is ringing in an expanded observer program for commercial fishermen in previously unobserved fisheries off Alaska. These fisheries pertain to all sectors of the groundfish fishery, including vessels less than 60 feet length overall and the commercial halibut sector. However, it’s not surprising that there’s still confusion surrounding the restructured federal fisheries program. NMFS has hosted a number of outreach workshops to help alleviate some of the concerns and questions that fishermen, processors and industry representatives have.
Earlier this month, NMFS observer chief Martin Loefflad conducted a presentation at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Last month, Loefflad and Glen Campbell, both from NMFS, made a similar presentation at the AEB Fishermen’s Meeting in Seattle. Loefflad began by providing the nuts and bolts of how the program will operate.
The program is basically split into two parts. One part (full coverage) applies to large catcher processors, AFA catcher vessels, and other large boats. They would be required to have 100 percent observer coverage. They have an observer on board all the time.
The other group is partial coverage. The costs of this program are going to be covered by the federal government the first year. After that, costs will be paid by a fee that will be put in place for processors to pay. Small vessel operators will pay into that program.
Two groups will fall under the partial coverage program: trip selection and vessel selection.
Trip selection applies to all catcher vessels of any length fishing with trawl gear and to hook-and-line and pot gear vessels that are greater than or equal to 57 ½ feet in length. About 15 percent of a vessel operator’s trips will be observed under trip selection. Loefflad said fishermen who are part of the trip selection group can log in online or on the phone beforehand. In addition, they can log up to three trips ahead of time. These trips can be edited as changes occur.
Campbell said with the online system, fishermen will have a username and password.
“So you’ll need to log when your expected leave date is, what port you think you’re leaving from, and your expected return date,” he said. “These dates are kind of place holders if you’re essentially picked for observer coverage.”
Campbell said an email will go to the observer provider, letting the contractor know that a specific fisherman has been picked for observer coverage. Communication between the provider and vessel operator can begin at that point.
“So let’s say you’re picked for an observer, and you’re leaving on the first. But weather comes up,” Campbell added. “The observer, by regulation, has to stay by your boat for at least 48 hours before they can be released. So you actually don’t need to realize that trip until the third. Now if the trip is not realized on the third, you can simply call the provider. The provider will cancel that trip, and then the next logged trip will automatically be observed.”
Loefflad said about one thousand letters went out to vessel owners. About 500 were identified as falling under the trip selection observation program.
“So what if you operate a vessel but you don’t own the boat? The vessel owner needs to either go on the site or call the call center and they need to create what we call ‘captains accounts’”, said Campbell. “The captain can then log his own trip. But the registered owner is ultimately responsible for everything that happens with that vessel. So the owner can log trips or he can create accounts for all his captains.”
One of the biggest questions is what is a trip? According to Loefflad, there are two different definitions. One is for fishermen delivering to tenders. The other is for fishermen who are not delivering to tenders (to a shoreside processors instead.
“So if you’re not delivering to a tender, a trip is defined as when you leave the port and return to port to make a delivery. That’s a trip,” he said. “Not everyone will get picked to have an observer on board. But if you do and you’re delivering to tenders, you just keep that observer on until you get back to port.”
“If you make at least one delivery to a tender and then return to a port that has a shoreside processor,” Campbell added, “that’s a trip.”
The vessel selection pool applies to catcher vessels, fishing with hook-and-line and pot gear that are less than 57 1/2 feet in length and, for the first year, greater than or equal to 40 feet in length. Vessel owners in this pool will not be required to log trips. However, a handful of vessels, randomly selected by NMFS, will be required to take observers for every groundfish or halibut fishing trip that occurs during a specified two-month period. Owners of these selected vessels will be contacted by NMFS at least 30 days in advance of the two-month period.
Every year in June, NMFS is required to present a report to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to discuss what officials from the observer program have learned. Loefflad says at that point, the Council can start providing input as to how NMFS can implement changes to make the program work more efficiently in future years.
“We are committed to making this program work,” said Loefflad, “so there is some flexibility built into the program.”
Contact Information: North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program – Partial Coverage:
NOAA Data Technician Office
(800) 304-4846, option #1
AIS, Inc. (Observer Provider)
(855) 247-6746 (855-AIS-NPGO)
Observer Program (Seattle Office)
(206) 526-4195 (Martin Loefflad, Director)
(206) 526-4194 (Patti Nelson, Deputy Director)
Observer Declare and Deploy System (ODDS)