With the Trump administration looking to reduce burdensome regulations and slash unnecessary bureaucratic jobs, it’s time for them to take a hard look at NOAA’s fishery observer program. This program has grown from a handful of employees just two decades ago, now to hundreds of them who swarm fishing docks each day looking for a ride. And if you dare refuse, you face possible fines, or NMFS enforcement will not allow you to go fishing.
I’m the owner of a 75-foot fishing vessel out of Point Pleasant, N.J. And in the last two years, I have seen my observer coverage double, despite my best efforts to avoid them. The coverage in the Mid-Atlantic has substantially increased because NMFS has put most New England fishermen out of business, so instead of reducing the workforce, they in true bureaucratic tradition increase coverage on those left — this despite the fact that the Mid-Atlantic fisheries have already had extensive coverage for more than 20 years. There is no new data to be gathered. It is simply an effort to enrich the observer provider companies and increase the workforce in the Northeast Fishery Science Center, which has to collate and analyze the data.
Since we have had such extensive fishery coverage over the years, why do we need to increase it? What exactly do they expect to find? In the summer flounder fishery in New Jersey, thousands of observed trips have been taken over the years. Do they expect to find something different?
The data will be the same. The coverage is redundant and a waste of taxpayer dollars. And soon it will be the death knell of the independent fisherman, as NMFS expects them to pay the $750 a day to the observer companies, which in many cases is more than the boat makes on a trip. Also the more data that gets gathered, the more employees at the science center need to analyze it. The pathetic performance of the science center in regard to stock assessments is legendary and documented by the National Academy of Sciences study of fishery management plans. More data will not help them until they fire the incompetent people who still are doing the same stock assessments.
Recently the newest boat at our dock, totally refurbished less than a year ago, was informed that an observer had gotten bed bugs from it. The problem here is that it was an observer who brought the bedbugs onto the boat in the first place. The boat in question had new mattresses and bedding, with the same crew since its arrival. What they also had was an army of observers rotating on their boat, observing scallop and other fisheries. These observers hop from boat to boat, carrying their bags and bedding with them. Many of them are stationed in a group home near large fishing ports, where they live with up to nine other observers in the same small rental, sharing beds and furniture. They have become modern-day Typhoid Marys with the ability to contaminate multiple boats and houses with bedbugs, lice, crabs and fleas, among other unsanitary conditions. Observers and their belongings and group homes should be required to undergo weekly health examinations, just as fishermen are required to have their safety equipment checked.
Presently, all fishing vessels taking out observers face the real possibility of losing everything if an observer gets seriously injured on their boat. They are supposed to be covered by the government in case of an accident, but you can be sure if there is a serious accident that the victim’s lawyer will come after any and everybody. This is totally unfair to the fishing industry. We absolutely want nothing to do with having an army of inexperienced novices aboard our vessels. It endangers us all, and will at some point cause a fisherman to go bankrupt from an accident.
One of these observer provider company’s main shareholder and president is Andy Rosenberg, who is the former regional administrator for the Northeast regional office, now known as the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. Rosenberg served for five years in that position before leaving in 2000. While there he championed increasing observer coverage in all fisheries, and after leaving, he continued doing so using his previous position’s prestige to influence NMFS’ observer policy. After the required federal employee time lapse, he then heavily invested in MRAG and has helped turn it into the largest observer provider on the East Coast, with 70 percent of the contracted employees. A congressional investigation into this seemingly cozy relationship between a high-ranking former NMFS employee, his company and the agency that awards the observer contracts is long overdue.
There is an answer to the observer problem that would save millions of dollars, but might upset Mr. Rosenberg’s gravy train. NOAA should contract working fishing vessels to have an observer onboard for all fishing trips. I think 10 to 12 boats that engage in various fisheries on the East Coast would provide adequate coverage. The boat would be paid $500 per fishing day, and the observer would act as an extra crewman, helping sort the catch, ice fish, unload, etc., while also documenting catch. He would be paid on a half share basis, by the boat, and $150 by the observer program. The boat would be required to provide his insurance coverage as an independent contractor and crewman, while the vessel would engage in all the different fisheries that it has permits for, abiding by all state and federal regulations, quotas and trip limits.