NOAA reduces monitoring requirements, sets groundfish catch limits in Northeast US

Published on
May 3, 2016

At-sea monitoring requirements for Northeast multispecies groundfish vessels have been lowered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), bringing relief to fishermen who have been forced to absorb its cost due to a recent policy change.

In the same ruling, NOAA also set quotas for 2016 to 2018 covering 20 groundfish stocks, including decreasing the quota for Georges Bank cod to a level that will be “devastating” to the Northeast groundfishing fleet, according to one fisherman.

NOAA’s final rules, known as Framework 55, were filed Monday, 2 May and went into immediate effect to coincide with the beginning of the 2016 fishing season. Commercial groundfish operators will only be required to pay for monitors on 10 percent of their trips, whereas previously they had been expected to pay for them on 20 percent of their trips. The Northeast Fisheries Observer Program will pay for an additional four percent of the monitoring, pushing monitoring requirements to 14 percent of groundfish fishing trips taken by commercial vessels.

NOAA cited standards that required it to minimize costs and adverse economic impacts, while maintaining sound scientific practices to ensure sustainable fishing levels, as a reason for the lowering of the requirements.

“Due to joint and severable liability of sector members for certain violations, including illegal discarding and misreporting of catch, there is a strong incentive for sector members to self-enforce monitoring and reporting requirements to ensure the sector has the most accurate information available,” NOAA said in the framework. “In light of these requirements, and based on the available analyses of groundfish monitoring programs, we conclude that the sector monitoring requirements overall, including the adjustments to the method used to set the ASM coverage level in conjunction with other available data, are sufficient to monitor sector allocations and prevent overfishing.”

The decision was praised by fishermen and faulted by environmental and conservation groups.

"Fishermen appreciate the changes and the evolution of the at-sea monitoring program," Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, told the Massachussets-based Gloucester Times. "We think what they've done is prudent and responsible."

However, the Environmental Defense Fund said the ruling was "an abdication of [NOAA’s] legal duty under the Magnuson-Stevens Act" and said its approval "is a stain on their legacy,” according to the Times, and Oceana said it was "akin to pouring gasoline onto a burning house" and will “further weaken the fishery's chances of recovery.”

Fishermen were less pleased with the quotas set by Framework 55, which will push down catch limits for gray sole by 55 percent from 2015, northern windowpane flounder down 33 percent and Gulf of Maine yellowtail flounder down 28 percent.

Most harmful was a cut of the Georges Bank cod quota by 66 percent to 730 tons, though that number will increase to 1,197 tons in 2017 and 2018.

“Those cuts will be devastating to the groundfishing fleet of New Bedford, and the whole New England coast,” John Haran, manager of groundfish Sector 13, told New Bedford, Massachusetts-based South Coast Today.

The low cod quota is acting as a choke on the ability of fishermen to catch other kinds of fish whose catch limits have been raised in the new framework, including haddock, pollock and redfish, according to NOAA regional administrator John Bullard.

“There are a lot of good-to-eat fish to catch, but they’re not cod – so the challenge is, how do you avoid cod while catching haddock, and, similarly, pollock and redfish?” Bullard told South Coast Today.

Elsewhere in its ruling, NOAA also announced the five companies it has permitted to provide at-sea monitoring for the Northeast groundfishing fleet. They are MRAG Americas, Fathom Research LLC, A.I.S., East West Technical Services LLC and ACD USA.

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