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COVID-19 and mandated on-board fisheries observers during the pandemic resurgence

Nils E. Stolpe/FishNet USA

© 2020 Nils E. Stolpe

July 26, 20200


On the heels of delaying its Northeast fisheries observer program this summer, the National Marine Fisheries Service cancelled three planned research surveys for the remainder of 2020 on the research vessel Henry B. Bigelow as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Anyone who is familiar with the NOAA/NMFS stock assessments realizes that the annual surveys conducted by the R/V Henry B. Bigelow in the Northeast and her sister ships in other regions (the R/V Bell M. Shimada, R/V Oscar Dyson, R/V Pisces, and R/V Reuben Lasker, (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/node/231) are the backbone of the federal fisheries management process. This fleet of state-of-the-art fisheries survey vessels, which represent an investment of almost half a billion taxpayers’ dollars, is of an importance to the federal fisheries that it would be extremely difficult to overstate.


The NOAA/NMFS “Navy’s” at-sea surveys in the Northeast region were cancelled at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and will not be resumed for at least the remainder of this year. “Since March, we have been rigorously analyzing various options for conducting cruises this year and are taking a survey-by-survey, risk-based approach. After much deliberation, we determined that there was no way to move forward with these surveys while effectively minimizing risk and meeting core survey objectives,” according to officials at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in a statement issued July 10. (https://tinyurl.com/y2e9y9wd).


The Bigelow is 208 feet long, cost $54 million to build, has a crew of 24 and a compliment of 17 scientists (https://tinyurl.com/yxgoks6z ). There isn’t a commercial fishing vessel on the East Coast that approaches the Bigelow in size, in displacement, or in the amount (or comfort) of the accommodations for crew and scientists. Having her sitting at the dock in Newport, Rhode Island is going to have an incalculable negative impact on the fisheries management process and could cost the commercial fishing industry from North Carolina to Maine tens of millions of dollars when the scientists/statisticians at NOAA/NMFS are finished applying the precautionary principal to near-term future landings.

But mandatory on-board observers (https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/fishery-observers) pose no COVID 19 threat to commercial captains or crew?

After a successful push by the commercial fishing industry (An East Coast Perspective on Coronavirus Impacts at https://tinyurl.com/yy2rggf3), because of COVID-19 concerns, NOAA/NMFS put off plans for resuming the mandatory on-board observers program for one month. It is now scheduled to restart on August 1 (see Temporary Waivers on Northeast Observers, Monitors Through July 31, Resuming Coverage August 1 at https://tinyurl.com/yanxmkrq.) According to the announcement, “during the month of July, we (NOAA/NMFS) 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.... as has been done throughout the rest of the country, it is the intent of NOAA Fisheries to begin redeploying observers as soon as it is safe and appropriate to do so. While we intend to begin redeploying observers on August 1, we recognize that this public health crisis continues to evolve and changing conditions may warrant re-evaluating these plans.”

The assumption at NOAA/NMFS now is that it will be “safe and appropriate” for the crews, the observers, the crews’ families, the dock and handling/processing personal, and a whole bunch of other people to start redeploying observers on commercial fishing vessels as of August 1.


According to Chris Oliver (NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator) on July 16, 2020, “Observers and monitors, at-sea and shoreside, 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.” This was in the build-up to his announcement that observer coverage was to resume – with minor procedural modifications – on August 1 (https://tinyurl.com/y484oumk). Apparently Mr. Oliver’s fleet of mega-yacht expensive, state-of-the art research vessels aren’t essential to commercial fishing operations nor do they provide critical information to keep fishermen fishing. But having a stranger armed with a measuring board, a scalpel, some jars and a clip board on board a small commercial fishing vessel, is and will.


Who sets the “importance to the management process” priorities at NOAA/NMFS?

“AIS Inc., a scientific services company headquartered in Marion, Mass., has been awarded a five-year, $50 million contract to provide fisheries observers for federal monitoring programs in the Northeast” (Press Release. Northeast Fisheries Science Center, June 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y6kygnyd).


It sure isn’t the fishermen, their families, their neighbors, their colleagues or anyone else in commercial fishing communities.


I’d bet dollars to donuts that anyone with any experience in the fishery management process, at least anyone who didn’t work for NOAA/NMFS or one of the contractors that supply the observers, would be hard pressed to argue that observers on commercial fishing vessels are more essential or provide more critical information to that process than the trawl surveys that the government vessels and the scientists on them perform.

So continuing the surveys on these commodious NOAA/NMFS research vessels under the present – and obviously worsening – pandemic-spawned conditions can’t be done “while effectively minimizing risk.”