fisheries observers

KODIAK — A plan to put fisheries observers onboard all Alaska catcher-processors and a random number of catcher fishing vessels is on track for funding next year.

The reform is the first major change to the Alaska observer program in 15 years, but its fate was in doubt after the federal government slashed its budget and early National Marine Fisheries Service budget announcements were vague on whether the federal government would pay $3.8 million in startup costs.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has repeatedly sought startup funds for the program, normally funded through fees paid by fishermen. As late as Feb. 27, council chairman Chris Oliver told the Alaska Journal of Commerce, “We’re still waiting.”

In a Wednesday letter, Douglas DeMaster, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Alaska science and research department, wrote Oliver, saying, “Our budget is still not finalized, but our understanding is that this funding is a priority within NMFS and that we can expect it will be provided in 2012 through multiple sources for 2013.”

The letter is expected to be made officially public during next week’s North Pacific council meeting in Anchorage.

In his letter, DeMaster said $262,555 in discretionary funding has been made available, plus an additional $600,000 one-time allocation.

“We are expecting further money from other internal sources to total $3,800,000 in support of restructuring,” DeMaster wrote.

The new observer program will affect most fishing boats in Alaska. Brandee Gerke, a fish management specialist with the NMFS office of sustainable fisheries, said the changes are large.

Groundfish boats less than 60 feet long will be required to carry observers for some of their fishing time, and observers will be put on every catcher-processor boat, she said. Currently, boats less than 60 feet are exempt from observer coverage, boats 60 to 125 feet carry observers 30 percent of the time, and larger vessels have permanent observer coverage.

The method of paying for observers will also be different.

“The process right now is where they just contract and pay directly for their observer coverage,” Gerke said.

Boats get to pick and choose when they want to have an observer onboard. Under the new program, boats will pay fees into a pool, and NMFS will use that pooled money to randomly distribute observers across the fleet.

“They won’t get to pick anymore,” she said.

Smaller boats have protested that they will not have space for a fisheries observer. To address that, NMFS will begin to experiment with placing video cameras onboard fishing boats, a system long used in Canadian fisheries.

“I have allocated 175K to the Observer Program as a start to develop electronic monitoring capacity for implementation in 2013 along with the restructured observer program,” DeMaster wrote. “Where we go in the future with (electronic monitoring) depends in part on completing the observer program restructuring.”

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

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