Federal plans to expand observer coverage on lobster boats from Maine to Maryland may have a hit a lull, but they are not going away, especially for lobstermen who hold both state lobster and federal access permits, according to the NOAA Fisheries official that oversees the program.
Amy Martins, manager of the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, said yesterday the number of calls to lobstermen to schedule observer trips have declined substantially in the past month primarily because of concerns lobstermen expressed at a contentious June 4 meeting at NOAA Fisheries’ regional headquarters in Gloucester.
“We heard concerns from the lobstermen that our observer program was calling too frequently and that we were perhaps overly aggressive,” Martins said. “We’ve also done quite a bit of work since that meeting that has allowed us to zone in a little more clearly on the specific parts of the fishery we want to monitor, the fleet-within-the-fleet, so to speak.”
The focal point of expanded coverage, she said, will be lobstermen who also hold federal limited-access permits that mandate they complete vessel trip reports, which are used to accumulate much of the data that goes into determining the levels of monitor coverage.
She said that is one of the reasons that Massachusetts is slated to have more observer coverage than Maine, where there are far more lobstermen fishing.
According to NOAA Fisheries, Massachusetts-based lobster boats are scheduled for 266 sea days of monitor coverage in 2015, compared to 218 for Maine. Together, lobstermen from the two states are scheduled for 78 percent, or 484 of the 619, of the sea days of coverage slated for 2015 in lobster fisheries from Maine to Maryland.
“Massachusetts has a lot of activity because there are a lot more fishermen who hold other federal permits,” Martins said. “That’s why the coverage might seem relatively skewed toward Massachusetts.”
Lobstermen at the June 4 meeting voiced particular concerns over who bears the liability if one of the observers is injured while working on a boat.
Martins said boat owners can request a waiver form from the observers that, once signed, automatically shifts the liability to MRAG America, the private company that contracts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program coverage, with the possible exception of cases of “obvious negligence.”
The lobstermen, largely through the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, also have advanced the idea of NOAA partnering with state agencies, such as the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, to accumulate the required data rather than expanding the monitoring coverage.
Martins said her program has increased its level of partnerships with some of the state agencies, including meeting with state fishery biologists and attending lobster stock assessments workshops. But, she said, it is often difficult to develop those partnerships because of differing data requirements and collection methods.
“We’re most interested in discards of all species and many of the state agencies are just starting to collect that data,” she said. “So, we haven’t found a lot of areas of overlap.”