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NOAA Shifting to Industry Control Over Fishing Observers Death Knell for Independent Monitoring of Marine Mammal and Over-Fishing

From the Marine Fish Conservation Network:
September 24, 2007

WASHINGTON – September 24 – A plan to put substantially more fishing observers under direct industry control precludes independent monitoring and saps protections for shrinking fish populations, endangered sea turtles and marine mammals, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Under the plan, observers in the North and Mid-Atlantic, now under contract to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), would be industry selected and funded – a move that greatly expands a much-criticized model in use only for Alaskan groundfish monitoring.

Professional observers accompany commercial fishing vessels to ensure compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and other non-commercial sea life.

Most of these observers now work under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of NOAA, or through a direct contract between the Service and the Observer Provider Contractor. But under a plan whose public comment period ends today, approximately half of all
observers would work for the fishing fleets they are supposed to police.

“Placing the observers under industry control undermines vital safeguards for marine mammals and other sea life by compromising the reliability of any report resulting from observer data,” commented PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that professional observers are the only independent source of information for what occurs on the high. “This is like assigning investigation of white collar crime to corporate rent-a-cops.”

Apart from the inherent conflict-of-interest for the observers on the approximately 2,100 vessels covered by the plan, other concerns include crippling already weak protections for observers facing interference, intimidation and harassment. Observer reporting can have direct and significant financial consequences for violating vessels, but the ability of NOAA to act on complaints by purely private observers is questionable, at best; Deemphasizing all observer activities not required for monitoring by-catch limits, such as marine mammal interactions, fishing gear entanglements and fishing quota limits; and Shielding much of the raw data from observer reports from review by researchers and regulators.

Significantly, the Alaskan groundfishing program which uses a similar industry funded system has been strongly criticized in evaluations conducted by NOAA, the Commerce Department Inspector General and independent experts. The Association of Professional Observers also
strongly opposes the latest plan, contending that the Alaska system produces “lower wages, fewer benefits and inferior employee retention – all of which ultimately affect the quality of the data collected by the observers and the resulting science based on observer data.”

“Privatizing protection of ocean resources is precisely the opposite direction of where we should be heading,” Ruch added. “While enlisting market forces can be a powerful dynamic, this plan creates direct economic incentives for the industry to evade monitoring and distort data.”

CONTACT: Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)
Carol Goldberg (202) 265-7337