Deviating from plans that had caused an uproar, federal fishing regulators plan to announce Thursday that some of the fishing industry's costs for groundfish monitoring will be reimbursed this year.
The at-sea monitoring program places regulators onboard vessels and in March the federal government started shifting the cost for the monitoring onto the fishing industry, according to Northeast Seafood Coalition Executive Director Jackie Odell.
"The fishery's just not in a profitable place to be taking on this additional burden," Odell told the News Service. She said, "There are some boats that are going out, but it's a mixed bag."
A memo dated Thursday from a National Marine Fisheries Service official sent to congressional offices and obtained by the News Service said the federal regulators anticipate federal funds can cover at-sea monitoring for about 85 percent of the days at sea for the current fishing year. The memo cautioned that the agency does not "expect this situation to recur in future fishing years."
"Beginning July 1, groundfish fishermen will be reimbursed for their at-sea monitoring costs through an arrangement with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission," the federal memo stated. "The arrangement will last until funds are expended, and is not expected to cover costs for the entire year or be repeated in the future."
NOAA Fisheries, an arm of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, will hold a teleconference Thursday afternoon to discuss the reimbursement of at-sea monitoring.
In December the non-profit Cause of Action sued the U.S. Commerce Department on behalf of David Goethel, the owner of the Ellen Diane, a New Hampshire-based fishing trawler, arguing that taking on the cost of the monitors would cost hundreds of dollars per day at sea and render 60 percent of the groundfish industry unprofitable.
The industry has labored in recent years under reduced catch limits as federal estimates of cod have shown a sharp decline.
Odell said that the plan for years has been for the industry to start covering the cost of monitoring, but NOAA has regularly come up with money to take on the burden as it proved unviable for the industry. She said her organization is "extremely appreciative" that NOAA is offering the money for at-sea monitoring and hopes the agency's budget is "adequately funded" in future years to enable it to continue covering the costs.
An environmental group that believes monitoring of fishing boats should be expanded greeted the news with a mixed reaction.
"NOAA's announcement that it has found funding to cover at sea monitoring costs is good news for fishermen who otherwise would bear the costs. However, this is yet again only a temporary fix that does nothing to address the inadequacy of the monitoring program itself," Johanna Thomas, the Northeast regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Oceans Program, said in a statement to the News Service. "By not addressing the need for higher monitoring levels, these short-term actions continue to undermine chances for fish stock recovery and therefore for fishermen to be successful."
According to Thomas, NOAA monitors "only 14 percent of ground fish trips - not enough to determine who is playing by the rules and completely inadequate to provide any usable information to scientists or regulators."
"The current monitoring program, regardless of who is paying, is a waste of money," said Thomas, who said the fishery is "in crisis" and NOAA should take steps to "create a viable, robust monitoring program."
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, which cites a NOAA study, cod stocks in the waters off New England are only 3 percent of what would be considered a healthy fish population and a far cry from the seas teeming with fish centuries ago.
"This problem was decades in the making," the environmental group said on its web page, advocating for 100 percent monitoring of the groundfish fishery through electronic monitoring. The Environmental Defense Fund said there was "poor management" and excessive growth of fishing fleets in the 1980s and 1990s and "overly-optimistic stock assessments" in the 2000s.
The NOAA teleconference will be held at 2 p.m.