The following is a letter to Randy Blankenship, NOAA's Southeast Branch chief of the Atlantic Highly Migratory Species Management Division.
I certainly hope all is well. I would think that our federal government is still operating under the Social Distancing Guidelines that our country is under till May 15. With this being said, I am extremely disappointed to be taking calls from my membership that our pelagic longline industry's observer waiver has not been extended.
Aside from the inherent danger of traveling from all over the country, the inability to practice social distancing within the confines of our small pelagic longline vessels puts both our crews and observers at increased risk.
We have an observer program that operates at a high standard of safety and at-sea risk criteria. I would think the danger of covid-19 to any observer through improper social distancing is far greater than if a vessel's flares were to expire in the middle of the trip.
NMFS not extending the observer waiver to our pelagic longline industry is a blatant disregard for the wellbeing of our individual captains, their crews, our observers, as well as the families they would be returning to. The Blue Water Fishermen's Association and its membership will be holding the agency as well as observer program responsible for any negative results of this blatant disregard of the president's social distancing guidelines.
Because the industry is considered essential at this time, that makes observer coverage to exercise this fishery essential. The industry over the past number of years has more than doubled its International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas observer mandate. The last number I believe has 18 percent of our sets being observed much higher than the 8 percent minimum ICCAT mandate.
We should remember that with this observer coverage quarter starting April 1 there has been minimal fishing effort due to the pandemic. The quarter does not end until June 30. This would give NMFS ample time to assure the mandatory 8 percent observer mandate once the social distancing guidelines are lifted or relaxed.
I urge the agency to take the necessary precautions at this time by extending the observer waiver for the pelagic longline industry in order to protect the people they themselves are required to protect.
President, Blue Water Fishermen's Association