More fishermen have joined a lawsuit to stop a new federal fisheries observer program that began this year.

Late last week, U.S. District Court judge Russel Holland approved the addition of the brand-new Fixed Gear Alliance to the lawsuit filed by The Boat Company, a recreational fishing operation based in Southeast Alaska.

The Fixed Gear Alliance is a coalition of individual commercial fishermen and fishing groups including the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said Dan Falvey, a board member of both ALFA and the Fixed Gear Alliance.

“We are uniquely impacted by the new observer program since we're paying the fees and carrying the observers,” Falvey said.

Jan. 1 was the first day federal observers could be carried aboard boats less than 60 feet long and aboard halibut-fishing vessels. Before that date, observers were limited to larger boats.

Commercial fishermen loudly protested the change, which puts observers aboard boats that may not have space to easily carry them. They also objected to the randomized deployment plan for the observers, saying that larger boats with the capacity to catch more fish should receive greater coverage.

Despite those objections, no group legally objected to the plan until The Boat Company filed its lawsuit in December. Observers are not stationed aboard charter fishing vessels, however, and the Boat Company’s objection was based upon fears that the new observer program might generate improper data that would then be used to set catch figures.

The addition of the Fixed Gear Alliance means fishermen directly affected by the observer program are at the courtroom table.

“This is at what you could characterize as the early stages of the case,” said Juneau attorney Bruce Weyhrauch, who is representing the Fixed Gear Alliance.

While he will be working alongside attorneys for The Boat Company, the two plaintiffs have different goals, Weyhrauch said. “While the issues are similar, the parties couldn't be more different. … The objectives are significantly different.”

The Boat Company wants a system that generates good data for the recreational halibut fishery. The Fixed Gear Alliance, meanwhile wants a program that collects good data while ensuring that fisheries receive targeted observer coverage, not simply observers deployed randomly.

Those changes should lower the price of the observer program for individual fishermen, particularly if NMFS implements an observer program using camera observations as well as in-person measurements.

“I think NMFS made some serious errors,” Falvey said. “They should have paused … when the cost of the contracts came back at $1,000/day, and I think they made a mistake.”

The lawsuit will not be wrapped up any time soon. A tentative schedule approved by judge Holland calls for summary judgment arguments no sooner than July.

That would mean a final decision no sooner than August or September, almost three-quarters of a year through the first year of the new program.

“We may get through this year, but hopefully the lawsuit and the council process will be reevaluating this,” Falvey said.

Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at editor@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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