Lawmakers Ask Obama Administration to Fund At-Sea Monitoring for New England Fishermen

By ecoRI News staff

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and all nine members of the state’s congressional delegation have called upon the Obama administration to reverse recent policy decisions and continue the funding of at-sea monitoring for Northeastern fishermen.

While the government currently funds at-sea monitors, fishermen will have to assume the full cost of the program beginning this year, which the industry contends it will be unable to afford.

In a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, Baker and the delegation expressed “serious concern over recent actions taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA). The signatories are especially critical of the agency’s current at-sea monitoring policy, specifically its plan to shift funding of the program from NOAA onto fishermen, noting that such a move could potentially bankrupt the industry.

The Republican governor and the all-Democratic congressional delegation have joined forces to criticize the administration decision and the heavy costs that individual fisherman are likely to incur as a result of this policy, especially in light of the fact that the industry is still recovering from the federal economic disaster declared by the Commerce Department in 2012.

Citing a NOAA analysis of the transfer, the letter notes that monitors will cost the fishery $2.64 million in the first year alone, and would lead to an estimated 60 percent of the vessels in the fishery operating at a loss. According to the letter, this amounts to an “unfunded mandate that could lead to the end of the Northeast Groundfishery as we know it.”

At its June meeting, the New England Fishery Management Council requested that NOAA take administrative actions to “improve the efficiency of the program,” as well as “reduce costs of the (at-sea monitoring program) without compromising compliance” with current laws. In its response, NOAA rejected these requests, stating that they weren’t “consistent with current regulatory requirements and statistical standards.”

The Gloucester, Mass.-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents a significant percentage of the groundfish fleet, criticized NOAA’s decisions, while coming out in support of efforts by Baker and delegation to force a change in agency policy.

“The council has questioned the benefits and the costs to the groundfish fishery of the at-sea monitoring program, and has given their clear directive to the agency to either suspend or make the existing program more cost effective,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. “All requests made to date have received an astounding no from NOAA.”