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A Long Time Coming: North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program Restructure

It’s taken 20 years to accomplish but, at its October 2010 meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) took final action to restructure the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (Observer Program). This action provides a huge opportunity for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to make some needed Observer Program sampling design improvements and to expand observer coverage into currently unobserved fisheries. While implementation of the new program will be challenging, the result will be improved fisheries-dependent data for NOAA and the Council and will address a longstanding recommendation of the Department of Commerce Inspector General.

Under the approved Council action a variety of longstanding issues will be addressed. All sectors of the groundfish fishery including vessels less than 60 feet in length and the commercial halibut sector will be included in the program. Further, coverage levels will no longer be based on vessel length and processing volume; rather, NMFS will have the flexibility to decide when and where to deploy observers based on a scientifically defensible sampling design. The design of the new program will serve to reduce sources of bias that currently jeopardize the statistical reliability of catch and bycatch data collected by the Observer Program.

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A rare sunny day is captured digitally by a fishery observer onboard a catcher trawler leaving Unalaska Island. Photo by Aidan Hutchins.

Once the new program is implemented, all vessels and processors in the groundfish and halibut fisheries off Alaska will be placed into one of two observer coverage categories established in regulation: the “less than 100 percent” (<100%) coverage category and the “greater than or equal to 100%” (≥100%) coverage category. Observer coverage for vessels and processors in the <100% coverage category will be managed under an ex-vessel fee-based observer service delivery model. Vessels in this category will be assessed a 1.25% fee on the ex-vessel value of the landed catch weight of groundfish and halibut. The money generated by these fees will provide the funding available for deployment of observer coverage on this restructured portion of the fleet. The fee percentage, which will be set in regulation, will be reviewed annually by the Council after the second year of the program. Vessels and processors in the ≥100% coverage category will continue to obtain observers by contracting directly with observer providers (“status quo”) and will not be included under the ex-vessel fee-based restructured program.

Start-up funds will need to be available to NMFS to begin implementation of the restructured portion (<100% coverage category) of the program. The NMFS Alaska Region will continue to seek federal funding for start-up costs of implementation of the restructured Observer Program. Lacking federal start-up money, NMFS will collect fees in addition to existing observer expenses in a given year, from the restructured portion of the fleet for 1 year (“year 0”) to build enough money to begin implementation.

During the October meeting, the Council also notified the public that the Observer Advisory Committee will be reconstituted to respond to its new focus of 1) helping to resolve implementation issues that arise during the development of the proposed rule; and 2) developing electronic monitoring for specific sectors. The new Chair of the OAC is Dan Hull, and the Council is looking to fill the committee primarily with representatives of those included in the restructured program, and/or with experience and interest in electronic monitoring.  The projected timeline for implementation of the restructured Observer Program is dependent on several steps, many of which are now associated with the rulemaking process and Federal contracting process. Based on the size and complexity of each of these steps, implementation of a newly restructured Observer Program is not expected to occur until 2013.

The full text of the motion which passed unanimously 11-0 can be found on the Council website at The full text of the analysis (EA/RIR/IRFA) for restructuring the program for observer procurement and deployment in the North Pacific can be found on the Council website

By Patti Nelson


Download the complete research report:  PDF; 6.17MB.  (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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