PACIFIC OCEAN — West Coast trawlers and fishing industry leaders looking to minimize the risk of exposure to the coronavirus are asking for an emergency waiver from a requirement to carry human observers.
The National Marine Fisheries Service provided a two-week waiver from observer coverage in the spring. Chris Oliver, assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries, clarified in a message posted July 16 that waivers remain available on a vessel-by-vessel basis.
According to a spokesman, the federal agency has issued some individual vessel waivers for trips in the past three months — all were for times when observers were not available, not for other reasons, such as a vessel operator’s concerns about the coronavirus.
Industry representatives argue that further steps are needed as the threat of the pandemic continues and case numbers rise.
In a letter to the agency, they said social distancing is impossible on commercial fishing boats. The information human observers collect, they said, can be temporarily collected through monitoring cameras already installed on many boats, logbooks and by the fishermen themselves.
“There is no debate that an emergency exists, and the emergency was unforeseen,” the industry letter states. “The emergency regulations being proposed are not controversial within the industry … and they pose no conservation or biological risks.”
In his message, Oliver maintained that observers “create no more risk than a crew member.” But Heather Mann, executive director of the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, said vessel operators have a level of control with crew members that they do not have with observers.
“An observer doesn’t work for you,” she said. “You don’t have that same level of control over whatever they’re doing ... It just seems like a really unnecessary risk.”
Observer coverage was one of several measures required in the West Coast groundfish trawl catch share program after certain rockfish species were declared overfished. A number of these species have since rebounded.
Fishermen pay for the cost of having an observer on board, but the observers are employed by outside companies. On the West Coast, observer companies told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration they would be taking public health precautions because of the pandemic.
Mann does not think every fisherman is interested in a waiver. She thinks less than 15 boats in Oregon, Washington state and California would take advantage of an extended blanket waiver.
“Some people don’t even think the virus is a real deal so they’ll take the observer. They don’t care,” she said. “But there are people who do care and are concerned about that.”
The industry is also seeking temporary relief for fishermen from the payment of mandatory cost recovery fees, a percentage of the value of the fish harvested that goes to cover the costs of managing, enforcing and data collection in the West Coast trawl program.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has already upended major industries and economies globally, has not spared fishing.
Outbreaks have shut down plants and kept vessels at docks. Markets have shifted or, in some cases, disappeared. Coastal communities have seen spikes in cases at seafood processing plants.
This month, Seafood Harvesters of America, representing industry groups and fishermen, also sent a letter, this one addressed to National Marine Fisheries Services administrators and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
They asked the agencies to add a third criteria to the emergency action under which the fisheries service can waive observer coverage that considers “the health and safety of captains, crew, coastal communities and observers.”
They argue that the agency has taken a scattered approach to observer coverage across national fisheries, waiving it in some areas and enforcing it in others. The agency has said a flexible approach is necessary given the differences in fisheries and fishing communities’ circumstances.
But in their letter, industry leaders note that the agency canceled scientific surveys because of the logistics during an outbreak and the possible risk to staff. They argue that the same caution should be possible for the fishing industry, too.
“We understand the need for science and data — they are the underpinnings of all of our fisheries management,” the letter stated. “Our businesses, as well as sound fisheries management, depend on science and data. However, we cannot safely gather this data through the deployment of human observers at this time.”