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Senator voices observer concerns


Daily News Staff Writer

A newly expanded federal program that will put observers on small commercial fishing boats that harvest halibut and other groundfish in Alaska beginning Jan. 1 has drawn attention from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Speaking Thursday with the Daily News, Murkowski said she has concerns about the program’s impact on the small-boat fleet and the lack of detail about how the program will be operated.

"I have pushed my staff to try to get some more definitive answers from NOAA (Fisheries) on implementation," Murkowski said. "I’m not satisfied with where we are right now. I’m not satisfied that, come Jan. 1, you are going to have fishermen and smaller vessels out there that really aren't certain how they're going to accommodate an observer."

NOAA Fisheries is expanding the groundfish fishery observer program that, until now, involved only large commercial vessels fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

Beginning Jan. 1, a small portion of Alaska’s commercial groundfish boats less than 60 feet in length will be required to carry observers on board their vessels during fishing trips. Randomly selected vessels will have an observer on board for either one fishing trip, or for evey fishing trip during a two-month period.

According to NOAA Fisheries, the trip-selection (single-trip) pool of vessels will have a coverage rate of between 14-15 percent during 2013, while the vessel-selection (two-month) pool will have a coverage rate of 11 percent

Vessels of 40 feet or less in length will be exempt from observer requirements in 2013.

The process to expand the program has been under way for the past couple of years with involvement by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The final rule published Nov. 20 does not include an option for electronic video monitoring that many small-boat commercial fishermen have sought as an alternative to having an observer aboard their vessels. The expanded program will have an electronic monitoring pilot project next year, and NOAA Fisheries is looking for small commercial vessels to deploy and test the camera technology.

NOAA Fisheries’ deployment plan for 2013 doesn’t include many details describing how the program logistics will work for those vessels that are randomly selected to have observer coverage. According to NOAA Fisheries, the deployment plan provides flexibility for the program to develop over time rather than establishing rules in regulation that might not be a good fit now and would be difficult to change later on.

The relative lack of logistic detail now is a concern for Murkowski.

"You effectively have this program that is going to go into place on Jan. 1 that has so many blank spaces in terms of understanding how this is going to operate," she said. "If, in fact, you have an observer that doesn't show up, what do you do? Do you sit there and wait? Time is money in the fishing world, and weather can change."

She’s also concerned about increased costs for small-boat operators.

Murkowski said she believes strongly that fishery data is critical, and that she isn’t suggesting there shouldn’t be an observer program.

"But I am suggesting that there are ways we can provide for good, strong data in a way that is not so obtrusive as having an extra person on a small vessel, and breathing over the shoulder of the crew," Murkowski said.

She said her staff is engaged with NOAA regarding the status of the pilot electronic monitoring project. She’s heard support from fishing organizations for electronic monitoring as a viable option, and that they’re interested in working with NOAA?Fisheries to make the option available.

"I don’t see anybody saying we ought to ditch the observer program," Murkowski said. "What they're saying is, ‘Work with us to put in place a monitoring program that's going to work for all classes of vessels.’"

Further information about the observer program is available on the NOAA Fisheries website at: http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/sustainablefisheries/observers/.

On another subject, Murkowski was asked about the potential for federal support for a proposed facility in Ketchikan that could produce oyster seed for the mariculture industry in Alaska and beyond.

The Ketchikan-based OceansAlaska Marine Science Center is proposing to construct the approximately $3 million land-based facility.

The proposal follows OceansAlaska’s successful 2012 oyster seed production effort in its floating facility, and is a response to ongoing industry concern about seed shortages coastwide. OceansAlaska President Gary Freitag has said the nonprofit organization will seek state funding primarily, but that some federal funds might be possible.

Murkowski was aware of the oyster seed supply problems, and said she thinks Alaska has an opportunity to assist the industry.

"Knowing that we could be in a position there in Ketchikan to really help build out this fledgling mariculture industry, ... and if we can be the source for the seed for companies up and down the coast, I think this is pretty exciting," Murkowski said.

Regarding federal funding, Murkowski noted that congressional earmark funding for projects is no longer possible.

"But there are other avenues that we can look to for federal funding," she said, citing the potential for grants from a variety of federal agencies.

Still, "I would be wrong to suggest that it's going to be easy pickings out there because we're looking at reduced budgets in all departments, all categories," Murkowski said. "But there will continue to be grant programs that can be made available. OceansAlaska would have to be competitive, and I have no reason to think that they would not be."