Fishing fleets say NOAA observers are too risky amid pandemic

Crowded fishing boats are no place for data-collecting observers during a deadly pandemic, say fleet owners. NOAA has started granting waivers

Commercial fishing boats docked at Saquatucket Municipal Marina in Harwich Port, Mass.  (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Commercial fishing boats docked at Saquatucket Municipal Marina in Harwich Port, Mass. (John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Posted April 10, 2020 at 6:30am

Fishing fleets in the U.S. are taking a gamble during this public health crisis by pursuing their catch despite swooning customer demand, a hazy future and the risk crew members could contract the coronavirus.

While commercial fishermen are checking temperatures, wearing gloves and self-isolating, they are looking to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to step in and waive a federal requirement to carry independent observers on trips to sea. They say the agency has been slow to react, instead issuing a patchwork of waivers.

To gather scientific data, track species and keep watch on the industry, NOAA manages an observer program -- a network of specialists who climb aboard ships and document what they see and hear.

But as the virus and COVID-19, the disease it causes, upend daily life in the U.S. and abroad, people in the industry say they are worried about continuing to place potentially infected observers on ships in close proximity with crew members, who already operate in tight quarters.

“It’s virtually impossible to maintain six-foot separation,” said Mike Conroy, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, headquartered in San Francisco. Deckhands often work shoulder-to-shoulder to haul in their catch, eat in tight galleys and rest bunked a few feet apart. “You can’t really sleep in different spots.”

Temporary waivers

In late March, NOAA’s fishery division issued a temporary waiver to allow some vessels in some waters of the Northeast, the Pacific, Hawaii and Alaska to apply for exemptions from the observer program on a case-by-case basis. Regional NOAA offices in New England and Florida followed with temporary waivers of their own.

“To keep seafood supplied to markets during these extraordinary times, NOAA Fisheries issued an emergency action on March 24, 2020 to provide the authority to waive observer coverage, some training, and other program requirements temporarily on a case-by-case basis,” Jasmine Blackwell, an agency spokeswoman, said of that exemption.

But NOAA has not issued a national waiver or a waiver that extends for more than a few weeks, concerning fishermen in the U.S., where the industry operates between 25,000 and 27,000 commercial fishing boats in American territorial waters, and throwing their plans into uncertainty at a moment when demand from restaurants and overseas markets is flagging.

Low prices and medical risks are top of mind for Linda Behnken of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, based in Sitka.

“Because restaurants are closed, prices for fresh markets disappeared and prices have dropped 35, 40 percent,” Behnken said of fish Alaskan vessels are seeking now, including halibut. “The other big issue is observers, who are traditionally flown into remote areas and sent out on boats.”

Not every vessel requires an observer for every trip, and some observers, who typically work alone but can operate in pairs on larger boats, are stationed at docks or processing facilities. Depending on the fishery, observer coverage can vary from nearly zero percent to complete, according to Gib Brogan, a senior campaign manager with the advocacy group Oceana.

About 850 observers, who could bounce from boat to boat to boat in a matter of days, deployed during 2019 on commercial fishing vessels. They jot down what is caught, what is thrown back and report the results. Behnken worries observers could spread the virus, which is highly contagious, to a small town and trigger an outbreak, overwhelming the local medical system. “Our communities here, for the most part are not connected to road systems, they're really isolated rural communities with really limited medical facilities,” she said.

Her organization, which represents small vessels, received waivers for two weeks, she said. But those expired Thursday, leaving Behnken dangling as she plans for the season.

No cases reported

In interviews with leaders in the commercial fishing industry with vessels operating in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Gulf of Mexico and around island nations in the South Pacific, no one reported positive COVID-19 diagnoses.

The Homeland Security Department named farming and fishing critical industries during the pandemic. But fishermen said they are worried about space on the boats and close quarters in the bunk room. Gloves are part of the job, but not everyone has proper masks.

On April 2, Canada issued a temporary 45-day ban on at-sea observers for commercial fishing, citing health risks from COVID-19.

In a letter to NOAA, William Gibbons-Fly, head of the American Tunaboat Association, said the observer requirement for western and central Pacific vessels were waived days before, adding that the supplies and airplane service was dwindling in the region and a StarKist fish cannery in American Samoa could close. Gibbons-Fly said his association wants the agency to exempt tuna boats from observer requirements.

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Gibbons-Fly said he was skeptical the absence of observers would lead to crews breaking rules on what they keep, adding that a lot of the scientific data can be gathered dockside by observers or at canneries.

“At port, when the fish is offloaded, you can get a lot of the data, such as size and species composition,” Gibbons-Fly said.

In 2018, the most recent year with NOAA data available, commercial fishing brought in 9.4 billion pounds of catch worth an estimated $5.6 billion dollars, according to the agency.

NOAA manages nearly 500 stocks of fish in federal waters, between 3 miles from shore and 200 miles out to sea.

Data collection

Brogan said he’s concerned removing at-sea coverage could alter fisheries where observers are integral to their management.

“What's going to happen? How are those fisheries going to be administered in the absence of the observer coverage? And what risks does that present to either those fisheries or those protected species, to those fish that are bycatch?” Brogan said, using a term for animals caught accidentally.

“There are a lot of different ways to collect information about what fishermen are catching, keeping and shoveling over the side,” he said. “Observers are the most reliable way to do that.”

Congress included $300 million in economic aid for the fishing industry in its $2.3 trillion relief package passed in response to the coronavirus. The Commerce Department will distribute that money as grants and direct payments, but fishermen said it likely won’t be enough.

Beyond the observer hurdle, Seth Rolbein, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, said the customers have vanished.

“The elimination of restaurants, the elimination of markets, the major depression of the demand, just makes it really difficult to figure out what to do next,” Rolbein said by phone.
Ben Martens, head of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said the industry historically overlooked local customers in favor of international markets and restaurants.
Roughly two-thirds of the $102.2 billion buyers spending on “fishery products” in 2017 happened at restaurants, according to NOAA figures.

To bring in some cash, Conroy, in California, said fishermen in the state’s south are selling directly at fish markets to cope during the crisis.

Ashford Rosenberg, a policy analyst at the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, said the pandemic and the loss of revenue from lackluster tourism dealt a one-two blow to the Gulf region.

“It's been kind of a double whammy,” she said. “It’s not great,” adding that some fishermen are adapting by selling to smaller buyers.

Sales are down for vessels as much as half, said Rosenberg, whose group is tracking these figures. “It kind of ranges, but no one is saying that they're at the same place,” she said. “They're either anywhere from 10 to more than 50 percent less in sales or product costs than there were last year.”