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By SCOTT BOWLEN
Daily News Staff Writer
So, what happens if a fishery observer gets seasick?
That question and others about the federal groundfish fishery observer program that’s affecting many small-boat fishermen in Southeast Alaska for the first time this year were addressed Tuesday during a public meeting in Ketchikan.
Martin Loefflad, program manager for NOAA Fisheries’ North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program, led the meeting that was attended by about 30 people Tuesday at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.
Loefflad opened the meeting with a brief history of the federal observer program that got its start in the 1970s with foreign fishing fleets and was expanded in 1990 to part of the domestic fleets that operate in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2010 approved an expansion to the observer program that now includes the small-boat fleets fishing commercially for halibut, sablefish and other groundfish in Southeast Alaska.
The observer program has several tiers.
Most of the larger fishing vessels operating in Alaska fisheries, such as the pollock catcher and catcher-processing ships, are required to have an observer and sometimes two observers on board during every fishing trip. This group of vessels is in NOAA Fisheries’s "100 percent coverage category."
With the program expansion that launched this years, most Southeast Alaska commercial groundfish boats are in one of three categories of partial observer coverage as follows:
• Trip Selection Pool: Boats at least 57.5 feet long, and that fish with hook-and-line or pot gear. This pool also includes boats of any size that fish with trawl gear. Trip-selection boats are required to "log in" with NOAA Fisheries at least 72 hours before taking each fishing trip. The agency randomly selects boat trips that will be required to have an observer on board.
• Vessel Selection Pool: Boats between 40 feet and 57.5 feet in length that fish with hook-and-line or pot gear. NOAA Fisheries randomly selects vessels that will be required to have an observer on board for every fishing trip they take during a set two-month period.
• Zero Coverage Pool: This year, boats less than 40 feet in length, and boats using jig gear, are not required to have any observer coverage.
In the trip-selection pool, Loeffler said NOAA Fisheries estimates that 13 percent of hook-and-line fishing trips and 15 percent of the trawl trips will be required to have an observer on board this year.
Vessels in the trip-selection pool must contact NOAA Fisheries via computer or phone at least 72 hours before departing for a fishing trip. The vessel operator will be notified immediately during this log-in process whether the trip must have observer coverage,
If so, the contractor (Saltwater Inc.) that’s supplying the observers is notified that the fishing trip is scheduled to start at given time from a given port.
"The first thing (the contractor) is going to be doing is calling you to figure out where you're at, coordinating getting a person to that boat," Loefflad said.
The vessel doesn’t have to stay tied to the dock if the contractor can’t get an observer there, according to Loefflad.
"We understand fishing — it’s a business," he said. "We're not going to put people in a position to lose money waiting for us."
He cited a recent situation in Sand Point, in which flights could not reach that community in time for an observer to reach a boat ready to depart for a trip.
In that situation, the contractor contacted NOAA Fisheries and explained that it couldn’t supply the observer, he said. The agency then released the boat from its obligation to make the trip with an observer on board.
NOAA Fisheries staff is available by cell phone 24 hours a day to handle such issues, according to Loefflad, who had small, laminated cards printed with contact information available for the audience.
Boats in the vessel-selection pool will receive a letter from the agency if they must carry an observer on all groundfish fishing trips made during the next two-month period.
The vessel-selection pool contains about 500 boats. Only nine boats in that pool were selected to carry observers on trips taken during the first two-month (January-February) period of 2013, said Loefflad.
A larger percentage of boats in that pool will be selected when the IFQ halibut and sablefish fisheries start in March, said Loefflad, who expects that a total of 80-90 boats from the vessel-selection pool will be selected for observer coverage this year.
Boats selected for observer coverage during one two-month period can be chosen again for another two-month period during the same year, according to Loefflad.
Still, "the odds are very high that you're not going to get picked in any two-month period," he said.
When a boat is selected for two-month observer coverage, it must contact NOAA Fisheries at least 72 hours before starting a fishing trip during that period. The rules regarding contractor response remain the same.
Boat owners aren’t responsible for housing or feeding observers in between trips, according to Jennifer Mondragon, a NOAA Fisheries fishery management specialist based in Juneau.
"It’s not like you're keeping that observer with you for the two-month period — you don’t have to take them home between trips," Mondragon said. "If you do one trip during that two-month period, then that's all you're responsible for is having the observer on the trip that you do."
The NOAA Fisheries officials were asked about dealing with situations in which the observer might be seasick or worse.
In most cases, the boat should continue its fishing trip, according to Loefflad.
"If that observer is seasick — I’ve been there myself — we’re not asking for you to come in," Loefflad said. "They're out there for the trip, You're the master of the boat. Keep fishing. The only exception would be if it's really a life-or-death thing.
He was asked what a boat operator should do if an observer threatens to jump out if the boat doesn’t return to port.
Loefflad responded that the situation had never happened in 30 years. But if it did happen, the boat operator should be calling the Coast Guard, and the Coast Guard would advise on how to deal with the specific circumstances.
So, who are these observers?
Loefflad said they come from all over the country, all of them are college educated, and many are starting careers in fishery management.
"Each of them is now going through a three-week class with us where we’re focusing them on our sample techniques, at-sea safety, and the realities of fishing in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. ... We have a pretty big emphasis on safety."
The program involves about 45,000 observer-days at sea per year.
"That's a lot of time on the ocean," he said.
While there have been problems with observers, such occurrences are very rare, according to Loefflad.
"We set them up to come up here, and we train them that if they work hard, stay safe, and do their job, they'll probably have a pretty good experience, in my experience," he said.
The observers records a variety of information while the vessel is fishing, ranging from the location and timing of the harvest efforts to the specific composition of the catch and discards.
The information, which is available to the boat operator, is forwarded to NOAA Fisheries.
"We'll share that with you, … so you know what's being reported to the agency on your boat," Loefflad said. "At the same time, that information is protected by confidentiality. So while we can get (a specific boat’s data) and we can use it for management, it's not going to show up in the newspaper. ... People can't come and get it. Your competitor can't come and get it."
An audience member asked how observers fit in with fisheries law enforcement.
Loefflad said observers aren’t law enforcement agents.
"They don’t enforce the law, and we also to train them not to advise you on what the law is," he said. "The law can be quite complex. So they’re' not the experts on fishing regulations. They're out there do a specific job. That being said, they report to us. So if they see something that is an obvious violation, they are going to write that down. Those do get forwarded to the enforcement folks."
One area where the NOAA Fisheries program does "interface" with law enforcement is in rare cases of observer harassment, he said.
"There are prohibitions on harassing the observer," Loefflad said. "I don’t usually dwell on this because it’s rare, but it does happen on occasion. Then we engage enforcement to follow up and try to correct that behavior."
While federal government is paying for the expanded fishery program this year, it’s collecting a fee on all landings of groundfish harvested by vessels in the partial observer coverage categories to pay for next year’s observer program.
The observer fee is 1.25 percent of the ex-vessel price for a given species, gear and port. For purpose of the fees, those "prices" are determined before the year begins and remain fixed for the entire year.
"We published those fixed standard prices in the federal register in December, and these are in place for all of 2013," Mondragon said.
Payment of the 1.25 percent fees — which are split 50-50 between the harvester and processors — will be handled by the processors at the end of the year, she said.
The fee is expected to generate $4.7 million-$4.8 million this year. The funds will be used to pay for the 2014 observer program.