Fishermen, environmentalists: Fight over monitors not over

By PATRICK WHITTLEMarketsAssociated Press

Commercial fishermen and environmental groups agree that a longstanding dispute over the future of at-sea monitoring is far from over, despite recent funding help from Congress.

The monitors are on-board workers who collect data to help inform fishing regulations. The federal government moved the cost of paying for them to fishermen in some Northeast fisheries in 2016.

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Democratic New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said last month that a budget bill finalized by Congressional leaders included about $10 million to pay for the monitors. That means fishermen of valuable New England species such as cod, haddock and sole won't have to pay for the monitors this year.

But fishing groups, and the environmentalists who watch them, say the government and industry need to work together on a long-term solution to make paying for monitoring sustainable. Fishermen say they can't afford the cost themselves, as it can add around $700 per day to the cost of fishing.

"We've bought a year's reprieve," said David Goethel, a fisherman out of Seabrook, New Hampshire. "People better get realistic here real fast if they want to eat New England seafood, because the costs associated with it are just prohibitive."

Goethel was part of a federal lawsuit filed in protest of the monitor cost shift. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the petition last year.

Federal fishing managers are in the midst of trying to draw up new regulations about the monitors. They will likely be discussed at New England Fishery Management Council meetings this spring and summer.

Roger Fleming, an attorney with San Francisco, California-based environmental group Earthjustice, said finding an affordable way to collect data about fisheries is imperative. The data are used by the government to make decisions about things like catch quotas and the health of fish stocks.

"We need monitors on the boats. We have to figure it out," Fleming said. "We should take this year and find the solution that's going to work for everybody."

Monitors are typically on board on about 15 percent of fishing trips in the New England groundfish fishery, which targets bottom-dwelling fish like cod. The fishery is further hampered by the collapse of the New England cod stock, which was formerly the industry's lifeblood.

Shaheen said in a statement last month that including monitor funding in the omnibus government spending bill "will prevent a burdensome and costly at-sea monitoring fee from being imposed on New Hampshire fishermen this year." The bill has been signed into law. The move also impacts many fishermen from Maine, Massachusetts and elsewhere in the Northeast.

Shaheen has said it's the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's responsibility to find a long-term solution.