New England Fishery Management Council examining 100 percent at-sea monitoring for groundfish

The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) recently made adding 100 percent at-sea monitoring on all Northeast groundfish trips – as a part of its Amendment 23 proposal – its preferred alternative, with public hearings on the amendment to likely take place in March and April.

The council has been working on the Amendment 23 proposal for multiple years, and is now finally nearing a stage where it can begin considering potential changes to at-sea monitoring in the Northeast groundfish sector. In a somewhat surprising move, National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Administrator Michael Pentony made a motion that the council select Alternative, Sector Monitoring Standard Sub-option 2D, which would require 100 percent monitoring for the fishery, as its first alternative among four proposals.

Currently, the council is considering four separate alternatives: 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, and 100 percent coverage. According to the NEFMC, the council selected 100 percent as its preferred alternative to “solicit the broadest range of public comment possible and get a sense from industry of the maximum costs associated with this action.”

That decision to make it the preferred alternative is non-binding.

The decision came after the council received a full review of the various analysis that the council staff have made of the four separate alternatives, weighing the pros and cons of each one. That analysis includes an economic one, that highlighted the potential costs and impacts to the fishery that each of the alternatives would have.

Under that analysis, a “blended” model of observation that utilizes both human at-sea observers and electronic monitoring ends up giving the fishery its highest operating profits under 100 percent coverage, and a “buffer” removal would further increase those profits. The “buffer” is a management uncertainty buffer put into place for stocks in case the actual catch is higher than reported. With full monitoring, that buffer would be unnecessary, and Pentony included removing the buffer in his motion.

Interestingly, both the biological and the economic models showcase a somewhat counterintuitive fact when it comes to at-sea observation: Increased monitoring does not necessarily result in a more accurate assessment of the fishery, due to potential for observer bias. Fishermen who are only observed part of the time may use the times when they are not observed to increase their effort, or engage in discards, when not under the eye of either electronic monitoring or an observer.

However, the council also cautioned that the analysis only considers reported data.

“It cannot provide any context for the amount of illegal discarding of legal-sized fish that may occur on unobserved trips, and how that affects total catch estimation,” the council wrote in its decision document.

The costs to the fishery also depend on whether or not electronic monitoring would be subsidized, taking the costs away from the fishermen.

“Generally, EM is a lower cost alternative to human observers when a vessel fishes more than 20 days a year,” the NEFMC said. “Below this threshold, the cost of equipment, installation, maintenance, and video review combine to make human observers the more cost-effective option. However, preferences matter greatly, and many sectors and vessels will not opt into the option that has the lowest cost due to a preference for EM and/or human observers. These preferences may be driven by fishing practices such as high-volume fishing and long trips, or by vessel construction and equipment (i.e. an on deck conveyor for sorting catch).”

The announcement of the preferred alternative being 100 percent came just before NOAA announced the 2020 at-sea monitoring coverage levels for the sector: 40 percent. That’s a step up from last year’s 31 percent, but still far short of the 100 percent coverage that the council has selected as a preferred alternative.  

Photo courtesy of the Nature Conservancy 


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