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LI fishermen concerned about restart of onboard monitoring program

Long Island fishermen are raising concerns over federal regulators’ plan to restart a program that requires commercial fishing boats to carry observers on board to monitor operations beginning July 1.

Some fishermen in Montauk this week said they plan to refuse to allow the federally mandated observers and monitors to board their boats, given the resurgence of COVID-19 around the country and the uncertainty around potential infection from observers, some of whom are housed in Hampton Bays, once considered a Long Island hot spot for the virus.

The federal agency ordering the resumption of monitoring said it has enacted a series of safety protocols to protect fishermen and observers, including requiring that observers quarantine for 14 days before the start of a fishing trip.

The monitoring program, which helps in fisheries research and compliance with quotas, was first suspended at the start of the pandemic March 20 because availability and deployment of monitors was “becoming increasingly challenging,” according to a letter from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates fisheries.

Fishermen say the new order restarting the program could subject a generally older population of crews and boat captains to sickness and death, and further disrupt their livelihoods after the pandemic has largely crippled their finances. Commercial fishermen were deemed essential workers early in the pandemic, but the restaurants and bars that are prime markets for their catch remained largely closed until this month.

Vinny Damm, a lobsterman from Montauk who also fishes in federal waters for monkfish, said that when observers call to arrange a trip on his boat next month, he plans to refuse to take them.

“It’s too early,” he said, adding “I don’t know who these people are,” and there’s no way to social distance on a 45-foot boat, where crew members don’t wear masks while working.

One major issue for fishermen is, who accepts liability if anyone gets sick or the boat and crew have to be quarantined, said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.

Brady said she's telling fishermen who ask that, if it were her, she'd decline to allow observers aboard "until a proven vaccine or prophylaxis is readily accessible. No one should risk dying by being forced to take an observer on board when we readily report this data."

Fishermen have long complained about the observer program. Damm and others called it “degrading” to have a federal observer on board up to 18 times every 90 days fishing, checking their catch, observing their practices, measuring fish. Fishermen who travel several days are required to provide a bunk for the observer while many also provide food, fishermen say. 

On Dave Aripotch’s boat in Montauk, the galley for crew is a small space in the bow of the boat, with bunks attached only inches apart. The observer, male or female, bunks with the crew, a few feet above their dinner table.

"You can't social distance on a fishing trawler,” said Aripotch, 64. He had an observer on his boat for eight days in March at the start of the outbreak. No more. "I'm not going to let them on the boat," he said. 

It’s not just fishermen who are complaining. In a letter this week, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, an interstate fisheries body, expressed “deep concern” about the federal government’s plan to restart the program.

“Given the known risks of the ongoing pandemic, is NOAA planning to assume liability for the health costs and other legal or financial ramifications resulting from an infection transmitted by an observer?" chairman Michael Luisi of the council wrote. "This is an issue of concern for the fishing industry and should be addressed before observers are redeployed.”

Jon Hare, science and research director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which deploys the observers, said safety was “at the core” of its plan to resume. He noted that the number of trips won’t be increased to make up for lost days of observation and vessels with electronic monitoring won’t have to carry them.

The center also plans to lift the limit on the number of times an observer can monitor on the same boat. A spokeswoman for the agency didn't respond to calls and an email seeking comment. 

New safety protocols by contractors who provide the monitors include training on COVID-19 risk and awareness, minimizing observer travel among vessels, ports and states, pre-trip health screening for observers, and a 14-day self-isolation in advance of trips, Hare's letter states.

Observers will also bring masks and gloves, and monitor their temperature throughout the deployment.

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