Seafood Harvesters calls on NOAA Fisheries to apply observer waiver consistently for all regions

Seafood Harvesters of America is calling on NOAA Fisheries to develop a more consistent policy in issuing waivers for observers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bob Dooley, the organization’s president, and Leigh Habegger, its executive director, signed a letter sent Monday, 13 July, calling for NOAA to rethink the agency’s current policy regarding at-sea observer coverage. The letter – which was sent to Dr. Neil Jacobs, the acting undersecretary for oceans and atmosphere in the U.S. Department of Commerce; Chris Oliver, NOAA Fisheries' assistant administrator; and two other NOAA Fisheries officials – is calling for the federal agency to amend the “inconsistent and unequal” process of applying waivers by extending them to all regions where observers and at-sea monitors are mandatory.

“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.

Observers and at-sea monitors work on active fishing vessels collecting data and observing compliance with federal regulations. Currently, boats in the Greater Atlantic Region have waivers not to carry monitors through the end of the month. That moratorium was extended in late June.

Other fisheries, though, including the southeastern United States, where COVID-19 cases are dramatically rising, do not have such waivers.

The organization said the fishing industry has taken several steps to contain the spread of COVID-19, including mandating crew members quarantine and developing offloading protocols that minimize contact with processors. With monitors, fishing boats are now required to take on an additional person who may not have quarantined or may be coming from a different region and possibly exposing the crew to the virus.

That’s happening, the group says, while NOAA Fisheries has canceled scientific surveys across the country. The partnership between fishermen and the agency feels “one-sided,” the letter stated.

“The Agency is sending a particularly egregious message that fishermen are expendable while NMFS staff must be protected from contracting COVID-19,” the letter added. “This is unacceptable.”

Seafood Harvesters said its member organizations and fishermen are ready to help collect the data NOAA Fisheries needs. Many boats have cameras on board and others want them.

“Let’s work together to find a path forward that does not involve risking lives for the sake of filling a data cell,” the letter said.

As of deadline NOAA had not been reached for comment.

Photo courtesy of NOAA


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