U.S. House committee reviewing fisheries observer program

The Magnuson Stevens Act – the federal law that manages and regulates the nation’s fisheries – will expire September 30th.

Today, a U.S. House committee formally started the re-authorization process. And as APRN’s Peter Granitz reports, changes could be on the horizon for how the government monitors fishermen’s catch.

The Magnuson Stevens Act has been law for more than thirty years. It was last amended in 2006. It put an end to foreign fishermen legally harvesting seafood in American waters. And it’s stabilized many fisheries by enforcing catch limits.

No member of the House Natural Resources Committee present this morning indicated they’d let the program expire. And everyone who testified said it should be continued, though with some changes.

Commercial fishermen and industry representatives complained about the requirement to have human observers on vessels … recording the size of the catch and by-catch.

“If they were allowed to use less high tech methods, and cheaper methods, they would be allowed to survive.”

That’s Bob Dooley, president of United Catcher Boats. His company fishes the west coast and throughout Alaska. He says the captain is responsible for covering the cost of an observer, and it’s prohibitively expensive.

“It’s north of $900 a day, approaching $1,000, for the government to provide an observer.”

That number could neither be verified nor applied to the various fisheries in the state. It took many by surprise, including NOAA’s Sam Rauch.

He says NOAA is concerned about the cost of observers, and is interested in pursuing cameras in their place. But there are issues.

“A technological issue: What can the cameras tell you now? They’re very good at showing discard events. Did somebody throw something overboard? They’re not yet to the point where they could identify individual fish.”

On top of that, NOAA would have to adapt regulatory requirements to include the cameras.

Congressman Don Young, an original author of the Magnuson Stevens Act, says the observer program was not a part of the original authorization.

“It was put in there for NOAA to make decisions on the quota. And I’m saying let’s go beyond the muleskinner and get into the computer age.”

Young says he’s considering writing a provision into the reauthorization that would allow commercial fisherman to use newer technologies to monitor the catch.

“An observer is probably the worst thing that can happen to the sustainable yield rationalization. An observer is human. He can be corrupted. He can be put into the trawl net, to solve some problems. He could be a drunk. “

The act is set to expire September thirtieth leaving Congress plenty of time to debate the measure.