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A group of East Coast fishermen is suing the federal government over a shift in the cost of at-sea fishing monitors that they say will cripple the fishery during an already difficult time.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have said money for monitors in New England groundfisheries such as cod and haddock will be gone by early 2016. The monitors are trained workers who collect data to help determine future quotas on certain species of commercial fish.
Under the new rules, fishermen will have to pay for the monitors, which can cost about $800 per trip. Fishermen have spoken out for months against shifting the cost, saying it will sink many who are already dealing with the dwindling New England cod population and choking cuts to quotas.
A group including more than 20 groundfishermen is suing the federal Department of Commerce, which includes NOAA, in federal court in New Hampshire with a contention that the cost shift is illegal. The group is from New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia and it is seeking an injunction to protect fishermen from having to pay up.
In Maine, Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree and others have said the monitoring program could possibly be tweaked to make it more affordable. Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said she supports the lawsuit and believes NOAA should pay for the monitors.
One of the fishermen in the lawsuit, David Goethel of Hampton, N.H., said it is about protecting a way of life as much as preserving his ability to fish.
"Fishing is my passion and it's how I've made a living, but right now, I'm extremely fearful that I won't be able to do what I love and provide for my family," he said.
The monitors accompanied fishermen on about one out of every five trips this year, said John Bullard, a regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries.
Bullard declined to discuss the lawsuit. He said the agency is working with the regulatory New England Fishery Management Council to address the hardship caused by the change.
"We appreciate the challenge that paying for at-sea monitoring raises for fishermen," Bullard said. "We're not trying to punish the industry. We just don't have money."
Joshua Wiersma, northeast fisheries manager for the Environmental Defense Fund, said regulators should commit to transitioning to electronic monitoring to save money.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show one of the fishermen's last name is spelled Goethel, not Goethal. We regret the error.
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