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Feds delay restart of onboard fisheries monitoring on commercial boats

Fisherman Vinny Damm in Montauk on June 23.

Fisherman Vinny Damm in Montauk on June 23. Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

Federal fisheries regulators on Tuesday delayed a plan to restart a program requiring commercial fishermen to take observers on fishing trips starting Monday, following widespread criticism of the move.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, citing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, said it would restart the program Aug. 1.

Even while setting the Aug. 1 date, “we recognize that this public health crisis continues to evolve and changing conditions may warrant re-evaluating these plans," NOAA said in a statement.

"Should our plans regarding redeploying observers and at-sea monitors change, we will announce any changes as soon as practicable,” the agency said.

Representatives for local fishermen said the restart should be pushed back further.

“Come back to us when there’s a vaccine” or effective COVID-19 treatment, said Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, based in Montauk.

“It’s nice they extended it, but it’s not enough,” Brady said. “We’ll take observers when it’s safe.”

The federal agency's announcement came after the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, an interstate fisheries management body, last week had urged NOAA to delay the restart, saying issues of liability and safety were unresolved.

“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?" council chairman Michael Luisi wrote to NOAA.

NOAA did not address the issue of liability, including who would pay if a crew or captain were sickened by an observer, but did indicate some plans were under formulation.

“We will continue to work with regional observer and at-sea monitoring service providers to finalize their observer redeployment plans, conduct outreach with industry, and finalize our internal programs and policies that will support the safe and effective redeployment of observers and at-sea monitors in the region,” NOAA said.

Under the program, observers count and measure fish, monitor practices, record discards and other metrics. Some of the information is used to gauge the health and size of fish populations.

Some fishermen are required to take observers for up to 18 days for every 90 days they fish, including on multiple-day trips, providing sleeping accommodations in cramped crew quarters and sometimes providing food.

NOAA said the observers are an “essential component of commercial fishing operations and provide critical information that is necessary to keep fisheries open and to provide sustainable seafood to our nation during this time."

Montauk fishermen like Vinny Damm said given the risks to his crew and observers, as well as himself, he had planned to refuse to allow the observers to board his boat if the program had restarted July 1.

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