NOAA establishes national-level criteria for observer waivers in wake of criticism

NOAA Fisheries announced on 30 July that it has identified national-level observer waiver criteria, and that the redeployment of observers in the Northeast U.S. will begin 14 August.

The national criteria comes in the wake of Seafood Harvesters of America calling on NOAA Fisheries earlier this month to develop more consistent policies regarding observer waiver criteria. A letter sent by Seafood Harvesters of America called NOAA’s policy regarding at-sea coverage “inconsistent and unequal.”

“The agency has failed to issue a thoughtful, reasonable response that justifies the glaring inequities in its issuance of observer waivers in only some regions, an action that very clearly risks lives, during this global pandemic,” the letter stated.

The observer waivers were first implemented on 20 March as the COVID-19 outbreak was becoming an increasing issue nationally. Originally slated to end on 4 April, the waivers were extended in May, then again in early July due to the pandemic continuing to rage throughout many parts of the country.

Now, NOAA Fisheries is giving two main criteria for observer coverage waivers on board vessels:

  1. Observers or at-sea monitors are not available;
  2. Observers cannot reasonably meet safety protocols proposed by a state onboard vessels, or by the vessel owners or company on its crew.

“We recognize that there are differences for observer and at-sea monitor deployment across fisheries, and have heard the concerns expressed about how observer coverage varies regionally, and even within regions,” NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Chris Oliver wrote. “Given the diversity in our fisheries, from the composition of the fleets to how the fisheries are prosecuted, regional flexibility will continue in the detailed implementation of the two waiver criteria. We believe this adaptable approach will allow us to be transparent with stakeholders as well as responsive to ever-evolving changes on the ground. We also continue to encourage the use of electronic monitoring, as appropriate, as an additional option.”

Oliver added that NOAA Fisheries has worked with the regional observer and monitor providers – which are third-party companies – to enact safety protocols that “match those that are in effect for vessel operators and crew.”

“Observers and monitors, at-sea and shoreside, are an essential component of commercial fishing operations and provide critical information that is necessary to keep fisheries open and to provide sustainable seafood to our nation during this time,” Oliver wrote. “We will continue to monitor all local public health notifications, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for updates. We are committed to the health and safety of fishermen, observers, and others while fulfilling our mission to maintain our nation's seafood supply and conserving marine life.”

Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries


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