The New England Fishery Management Council on Wednesday approved a 100% target for the at-sea monitoring of sector-based groundfish vessels, but stipulated that the requirement will be contingent upon federal funding, at least for now.

The council voted via webinar to approve Amendment 23 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan. If the measure is approved by NOAA Fisheries, it could go into effect in early 2022. Under the amendment, the monitoring of fish landed and discarded at sea could be done with either human monitors or video cameras.

The vote capped three years of discussion and months of public hearings on how to best improve groundfish fishery regulation in New England. Environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation charge that strong oversight is needed to maintain a sustainable fishery. Fishermen for the most part have expressed grave concern about the cost, which could be as high as $700 per vessel per day.

The measure as passed states that the monitoring program will be contingent upon full federal funding for the first four years of the program. In year five, the federal funding target would be reduced. A review process was also put in place.

Fisheries advocates said they were at least pleased the council considered the affordability issue.

"Basically, the council voted to allow 100% at-sea monitoring as long as federal funds are available," Northeast Seafood Coalition executive director Jackie O'Dell told the Gloucester Times. "The critical issue on affordability over the long term continues to be left for another day. Industry is still on the hook to pay once federal funds are exhausted."

However, many fishermen remain opposed to Amendment 23 on principal, and some have said the extra cost could put smaller fishing operations out of business.

"Amendment 23 is a fleet-killer," was a commonly-heard refrain at virtual public hearings held over the summer.

At least one non-profit says it will help with cost. The Nature Conservancy already sponsors a pilot program for electronic at-sea monitoring. Yesterday they said they will contribute "significant funds to purchase and install electronic monitoring systems" for any fisherman who prefers to go that route.

"This Amendment will give fishery managers and scientists the information they need to effectively manage the fishery and level the playing field for fishermen once and for all," the conservancy said. "We look forward to working with fishing communities to make this a successful transition."

Monitoring is already a reality in the groundfish fishery, but at levels below 50%. It's been estimated that electronic monitoring, including up-front and operation costs, would be about half the cost of human at-sea monitors.

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