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North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program Restructuring

The North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (Observer Program) was established to address the need for unbiased data on catch, bycatch, and interactions with certain marine species of interest from the Alaska groundfish fishery. Levels of observer coverage required by vessels and shoreside processing plants are based on vessel length and amount of groundfish processed, respectively. Vessels and processors contract directly with observer provider companies to procure observer services to meet federally regulated coverage levels.

While the Observer Program is widely recognized as a successful and essential program for management of the Alaska groundfish fisheries, it continues to face a number of longstanding concerns that result primarily from its underlying structure. These concerns include the inability of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to determine when and where observers should be deployed, inflexible coverage levels established in regulation, disproportionate cost issues among the various fishing fleets, and the difficulty to respond to evolving data and management needs in individual fisheries.

Since its inception in 1990, there have been numerous failed attempts to 'restructure' the Observer Program such that NMFS would contract directly with observer providers for observer coverage, and this coverage would be paid for by a broad-based user fee and/or direct Federal funding. This report summarizes past efforts and recent progress in Observer Program restructuring.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) last reviewed an amendment package with alternatives intended to restructure the Observer Program in 2006. However, due to concerns related to the inability to estimate industry costs and the lack of statutory authority, the Council did not move forward with restructuring the Observer Program but instead approved an extension of the current program by removing the December 2007 sunset date in existing regulations.

At the request of the Council, staff from the Council, NMFS, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), and the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) participated in the development of a discussion paper that addressed the primary obstacles to restructuring the Observer Program identified in 2006 and recommended changes to the problem statement and suite of alternatives, should the Council initiate a new analysis.

The full text of the discussion paper can be found on the Council Web site at

In December 2008, upon review of the discussion paper, the Council chose to move forward with restructuring the Observer Program approving changes to the 2006 problem statement and suite of alternatives. In addition, the Council specifically requested that staff begin their analysis by developing an 'Implementation Plan' (Plan) describing how NMFS would deploy observers under a restructured Observer Program. It was intended that the Plan would ultimately become a section of the overall analysis to restructure the Observer Program and feedback on the Plan would help determine the direction of other portions of the analysis.

Staff from the AFSC Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis (FMA) Division, the NMFS Alaska Regional Office, and the Council developed a draft Plan and presented it to the Council's Observer Advisory Committee (OAC) in September 2009, during a 2-day meeting held at the AFSC. A large portion of the Plan outlines funding considerations, including issues such as start-up funding, mechanisms to collect fees from the fishing industry, legal guidance on fee authority, and establishment of standardized ex-vessel value pricing for commercial fish species.

Another significant portion of the Plan focuses on observer coverage sample design and observer deployment which falls directly within the Observer Program's purview. This section of the Plan summarizes the current Observer Program sampling coverage design, past reviews of observer deployment, and a proposed observer deployment model.

While the proposed deployment model will be more difficult to implement than the current system and will most likely incur additional costs, it would reduce bias while facilitating the development of statistically credible estimates of catch and associated variance. Since the number of observers and associated costs are finite, implementation of new deployment strategies is envisioned to be incremental. Exact identification of strata and their coverage rates are to be examined in the full analysis.

Other issues covered in the Plan include issues related to partial versus comprehensive restructuring, relative agency costs associated with alternatives, Federal regulatory modifications that will become necessary, and a projected timeline for full implementation. The full Implementation Plan can be found on the Council Web site at:

During the 2-day OAC meeting the committee discussed the Implementation Plan, focusing on the most significant questions of the OAC members and important clarifications. At the conclusion of the meeting, the OAC provided recommendations on each section of the Plan and recommended that staff revise the Plan according to the requests presented in Observer Advisory Committee Meeting Report which can be found at:

A revised draft of the Plan will be presented to the OAC and Council in early 2010.

The implementation of a restructured Observer Program is a large and complex undertaking, and the projected timeline is dependent on several steps, many of which are associated with the normal Council and rulemaking process. Council initial review of the overall analysis, of which the Implementation Plan will become a part, is tentatively scheduled for June 2010.

Council final action is tentatively scheduled for October 2010, with the associated rulemaking developed through 2011. Contract development for a contract of this projected scope is expected to take about 2 years to complete, with the potential implementation of a newly restructured Observer Program in 2013. The FMA Division will continue to provide periodic updates on this program funding and deployment restructuring effort through the AFSC Quarterly Report.

By Patti Nelson


Download the complete research report:  PDF; 9.95 MB.  (To view and print this document, you must install Adobe Acrobat Reader freeware. Adobe also offers free tools for the visually disabled.)

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