COVID-19 prompts NOAA to extend fisheries observer waiver for the US Greater Atlantic region

With the COVID-19 pandemic still sickening tens of thousands of people daily in the United States, NOAA Fisheries has decided to issue an extension of its waiver on observer requirements granted to vessels operating in the U.S. Greater Atlantic region.

The agency had planned to resume observer deployments on 1 July, however, with COVID-19 cases spiking once more in the U.S., the agency decided to “re-evaluate and adapt to changing circumstances,” NOAA said. Now, any observer action has been postponed until 31 July, with NOAA saying it plans on redeploying observers and at-sea monitors on vessels fishing in U.S. Northeast fisheries on 1 August.

“During the month of July, we will continue to work with regional observer and at-sea monitoring service providers to finalize their observer redeployment plans, conduct outreach with industry, and finalize our internal programs and policies that will support the safe and effective redeployment of observers and at-sea monitors in the region," NOAA said. "Observers and at-sea monitors 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."

Concerns for the wellbeing of industry personnel, from fishermen and vessel operators to observers, prompted NOAA’s decision to extend the waiver.

“We are committed to protecting the public health and ensuring the safety of fishermen, observers, and others, while fulfilling our mission to maintain our nation’s seafood supply and conserving marine life,” the agency said. “As has been done throughout the rest of the country, it is the intent of NOAA Fisheries to begin redeploying observers as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so. While we intend to begin redeploying observers on 1 August, we recognize that this public health crisis continues to evolve and changing conditions may warrant reevaluating these plans.”

Seafood industry representatives have been uncertain about observer redeployment during the coronavirus crisis. Peter Hughes, a liaison from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC), said both collectives “have serious concerns about the redeployment of observers.”

“The industry has grave concerns – captains have an implied responsibility to look out for the health and welfare of their crews, and redeployment of observers takes that responsibility and their decision to sail out of the captains’ hands,” Hughes told SeafoodSource on 23 June, before NOAA issued its waiver extension.

“I am not an observer naysayer, as a matter of fact I fully support and endorse the observer program, but these are difficult times and vessels need not possibly introduce COVID-19 onto their vessels – [they] need to maintain supplying an amazing source of inexpensive protein to consumers,” Hughes added.

Bob Vanasse, the executive director of Saving Seafood, a fishing industry advocacy group, said that while NOAA ultimately made the right decision to extend observer waivers for the region due to the pandemic, the announcement came late.

"Given all of the facts that are available regarding the spread of COVID-19 and the current pandemic, I do not understand why it was not obvious to officials at all levels of NOAA sooner that this was the right decision,” Vanasse said. “Our members are grateful to NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Chris Oliver for ensuring that the right action was taken. And we are extremely grateful to Congressman Seth Moulton for taking the lead on this crusade, and to Congressman Bill Keating for joining him in that effort.”

Photo courtesy of nyker/Shutterstock


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