As RFMOs waive observer requirements, NGOs caution against permanence

As fisheries councils in the U.S. and abroad begin relaxing observer requirements in order to meet safety needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple NGOs have issued a joint statement cautioning against those relaxed requirements becoming permanent.

The letter comes as the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it is suspending West Coast observer coverage, in response to a recommendation made by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council suggested in a letter to the NMFS that the waiver could “match the duration of ‘shelter-at-home’ or similar orders by the governors of Washington, Oregon, and/or California.”

“In balancing the trade-offs associated with the short-term loss of the benefits that observer coverage provides, we ask that you consider a number of ways in which coastal communities are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 along with mitigating factors within the fisher management system,” the PFMC wrote. “With respect to coastal communities, decisions should not be based on impressions that the risk there is low because the virus is not currently prevalent in those communities.”

The move follows the waiver of requirements in other regions of the U.S., such as the Northeast, and across the globe, such as a suspension of observer requirements by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement.

As more waivers are taking place, a group of 19 NGOs have signed a joint statement calling on government and regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) to avoid long-term suspensions of monitoring, control, and surveillance (MCS) measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The letter – signed by organizations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts, IPNLF, Oceana, WWF, Global Fishing Watch, Environmental Justice Foundation, and more – urges RFMOS to be cautious during the removal of any MCS measures currently in place.

“Removal of key MCS elements, such as human observer coverage, bans on at-sea transshipment, port inspection, and high seas boarding and inspection would weaken the links that maintain the verifiability of fishing-related activities throughout the seafood supply chain,” the letter states.

The groups acknowledge that due to COVID-19 social-distancing requirements, certain monitoring activities – such as having observers on-board vessels – will jeopardize the safety of crews working on vessels.

“We recognize the unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19 and the need to ensure the health and safety of those working onboard fishing and carrier vessels as well as that of the communities onshore during this global pandemic,” the NGO letter states. “In particular, we understand the difficulties with meeting human observer coverage requirements at this time, given widespread travel restrictions in many regions and the very real and legitimate concern for the virus to be transmitted and then brought onshore, especially for developing states and small island developing states.”

However, those difficulties are not a reason to completely eliminate monitoring requirements, according to the NGOs, and all urged caution during any decision-making on relaxing requirements.

The letter offers several suggestions to RFMOs that are considering relaxing requirements:

  • Ensure any relaxation of standards is at the suggestion of expert advice, and temporary.
  • Require vessels with waived observer requirement keep track of their own observer-provided data.
  • Prioritize electronic vessel monitoring.
  • Increase vessel monitoring system (VMS) reporting rates for affected vessels.
  • Require broadcast of AIS data from suitably equipped vessels.
  • Ban manual reporting in the event of VMS failure, and require those vessels with a failure stop fishing.
  • Publish a list of authorized transshipments.
  • Dedicate additional resources to analysis of VMS and AIS data.
  • Increase port inspections, along with the cooperation and information sharing between port authorities and other relevant coastal states.

“The most successful examples of countries and industries fighting this pandemic have technological solutions in the heart of their approach. Fisheries should follow suit,” the letter states. “Enhanced electronic monitoring such as the measures described above, together with stricter reporting requirements, can help alleviate these concerns while at the same time still providing a good degree of oversight.” 

Photo courtesy of NOAA


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