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Judge orders environmental assessment for observer program

Posted: August 7, 2014 - 8:28pm

A federal judge ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to prepare a supplemental environmental assessment for the revised marine observer program that was implemented in 2013, although no immediate changes to the program will be made.

The Boat Company, a nonprofit that operates marine tours in Southeast, along with fishing opportunity and conservation education, sued federal fisheries managers in U.S. District Court in Anchorage over the revised at-sea observer program in December 2012.The revised observer program was implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, in 2013. It was intended to increase the statistical reliability of data collected through the observer program, address cost inequality among fishery participants and expand observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries, such as halibut longline vessels, according to a summary from the agency.

The Boat Company asserted that the revised program does not provide adequate information about bycatch for federal managers to properly manage the fishery.

The disagreement largely revolves around the partial coverage category for vessels in fisheries that do not have a 100 percent observer coverage requirement and are instead split into two pools — vessel and trip selection. Smaller boats, like halibut longliners are generally in the vessel selection pool, meaning that they’re randomly selected for 60 days of coverage at a time. Large boats, including Gulf of Alaska trawlers, are in the trip selection pool, where they must log each fishing trip and are randomly selected for coverage on one trip at a time. Previously many of the smaller vessels were unobserved.

The Fixed Gear Alliance, which primarily represents commercial fishers using longline and pot gear, participated in the suit as an intervenor, but Judge H. Russel Holland dismissed their claims because they were time-barred.

Holland wrote in an August 6 order that a new EA was necessary to look at when observer coverage rates were too low to provide adequate information, and said that the federal defendants violate the National Environmental Policy Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to consider that.

“NMFS must prepare a supplemental EA that addresses the question of when data being gathered by the restructured Observer Program ceases to be reliable, or of high quality, because the rate of observer coverage is too low,” Holland wrote.

Holland granted summary judgement in favor of The Boat Company on its Magnuson-Stevens Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Administrative Procedures Act. He ruled in favor of the federal defendants on other claims and did not grant The Boat Company’s request to overturn the program.

“NMFS could not ignore the fact that if costs of the observer program doubled without an offsetting change in the ex-vessel value fee, the quantity of data being collected would decrease, and that this decrease could lead to a reduction in the quality of the data being collected,” Holland wrote. “At some point, coverage rates will drop too low to generate quality data, but the EA is silent as to when this might occur.”

The Boat Company praised the decision.

“Today’s decision is an important step toward conservation of salmon and halibut resources and a healthier ecosystem,” said Captain Joel Hanson, Director of Conservation Programs at The Boat Company. “Sound fisheries management requires collecting the best available scientific information, and that means full observer coverage on the high-volume trawlers that account for the most catch and bycatch.”

In a formal statement, NMFS said it would work closely with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and stakeholders to improve the observer program.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision to uphold the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program—a decision which ensures this critical fishery management program will stay in place,” said NMFS Alaska Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger in a formal statement. “While the judge upheld the program, he has asked the agency to prepare a supplemental Environmental Assessment to look at program costs and coverage levels. Going forward, we will work with the court on a schedule for development of that supplemental EA.”

Reach Molly Dischner at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com

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