Fishermen fear looming cost of at-sea monitors this summer
PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — New England fishermen of important food species like cod and haddock say the looming cost of paying for at-sea monitors could put them out of business this year.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service said the money it had been using to pay for the monitors — trained workers who collect data on fishing trips — will be needed for other obligations. That means groundfishermen who catch fish like cod, haddock and pollock in New England waters will likely have to start paying the cost around August.
The new expense is coming at a time when it could cripple the fishery, fishermen said. Paying for at-sea monitors can cost fishermen about $800 per trip, which can be nearly half the gross profit of a good haul, they said.
Fishermen said the new expense will compound the costs of necessities like crew, insurance and fuel in a year that will already be bad for fishing. Among the challenges facing the industry is a quota cut of about 75 percent to Gulf of Maine cod that went into effect on May 1.
Jan Margeson, who fishes out of Chatham and Harwich, Massachusetts, said he has fished for 38 years and transitioned to harvesting skates and monkfish as cod became an increasingly difficult species to make a living on. He said he will have to pay for the monitors because he has a groundfish license, and it will be a burden — and a move that shifts hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs from regulators to fishermen.
"It'll probably bankrupt the fleet when this comes on board if we have to pay this kind of money," Margeson said. "You're going to see a lot of boats just stop fishing."
The cost to fishermen will vary based on the number of trips they make. Margeson said he will be on the hook for the expense on about a fifth of approximately 65 trips he plans to take starting in August this year.
That means he could have to pay more than $10,000 for the monitors this year and twice that in 2016. He said that his trips typically net about $2,000 in gross profit, and that the trips where he must pay for monitors could amount to "work for nothing" when he factors in other costs.
NOAA's current rules state that at-sea monitoring costs were to be put on the industry in 2012, said Teri Frady, a spokeswoman for NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. However, the agency continued paying because of "continuing economic problems" in the industry, which has weathered challenges such as quota cuts and low spawning, she said.
That is changing now in part because of a federal court's finding that NOAA wasn't meeting its need for statistics about bycatch across all fisheries. Meeting that need means NOAA won't have money for groundfish monitors, Frady said.
The monitors are hired from private companies, and their primary job is to collect data about discarded fish, Frady said. The data are among many pieces of information regulators use to set quotas and make sure fishermen are adhering to them, she said. Quotas are based on total catch, which includes fish that are brought ashore and those that are discarded, Frady said.
"We monitor the fisheries to get the data — more data means a better and more reliable picture of what is actually happening with the stocks and quotas," Frady said.
Some fishermen are pressuring lawmakers to help. Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, whose district includes some of the Maine coast's most active fishing towns, said NOAA should pursue electronic monitoring as a cheaper alternative.
The U.S. senators for Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island sent a letter to NOAA last week saying New England fishermen have "little room to pay additional per-trip fees" and directed NOAA to prioritize the monitoring costs over the other expenses. NOAA declined to comment on the letter.
Erik Anderson of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, said he was a ground fisherman for years but left the industry under the weight of what he called an onerous regulatory structure and became a lobsterman. He said the observer fees could mean a vessel would pay more to go fishing than it would earn from the catch.
"It's going to put another burden on them," said Anderson, who also serves on the Port Advisory Council at the Port of New Hampshire, adding that the end result could be "guys won't go fishing."
Associated Press writer Rik Stevens in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.