NEW BEDFORD — The prospect of a sharp increase in at-sea monitoring requirements for groundfishing vessels is pitting New England’s seafood providers against environmental advocates, and players from the Port of New Bedford are right in the middle of the discussions.

“Amendment 23” to the region’s fisheries management plan will be up for a vote Wednesday by the New England Fishery Management Council. The council will decide whether sector-based groundfish vessels should be monitored at a 25, 50, 75, or 100-percent level. Currently, fewer than 50 percent of all trips are monitored.

The council, known as the NEFMC, will also decide whether human at-sea monitoring, electronic monitoring via cameras, or a combination of the two will be allowed. Under electronic monitoring, video of the fishing operation would be either saved to a hard drive or uploaded to the cloud, then reviewed by regulators.

The council has already stated that a 100-percent coverage level is its "preferred alternative," and that it wants to allow electronic monitoring in addition to human monitors, but that's not set in stone.

“The council may have announced its preferred alternative in January, but we don’t know how the council will vote on Wednesday,” NEFMC public affairs officer Janice Plante told WBSM News. She said the council has been reviewing input from multiple stakeholders following a lengthy period of public engagement.

It's all about counting fish -- fish that are caught, and fish that are discarded at sea. In New England, groundfish vessels with appropriate permits may fish for 13 regulated species, including cod, haddock, flounder, and pollock. Atlantic cod is of particular interest to government scientists and environmental groups, who say the stock has declined dramatically and is overfished.

Plante said the point of Amendment 23 is to improve catch accounting to better inform policy to build and maintain a fair and sustainable fishery. “This is a public resource,” she said. “It must be managed in a sustainable way.”

Under the current human-based monitoring program, data is collected on species, areas fished, as well as discards. Amendment 23 would not change the core objective of the monitoring program, but aim to collect more comprehensive and accurate data, and could introduce some new technology.

A big sticking point is cost. It’s been estimated that having a human monitor onboard could cost the vessel operator around $700 per day. The estimated cost of electronic monitoring is said to be much cheaper, but the numbers aren't clear. One source has cited an up-front investment of $8,000, with additional daily operational costs of around $300 to $400. Government subsidies have been in place to cover the costs of at-sea monitoring for about a decade, and those subsidies are expected to continue for now. But bottom line, the costs are the responsibility of the fishing boat operators.

“Amendment 23 is a fleet-killer,” said Linda McCann at a July 30 public hearing on the matter. “It’s going to destroy my members’ business and my sector.”

Mary Serreze/Townsquare Media

At hearings hosted by the Newburyport-based management council over the summer, working fishermen and women across New England expressed opposition to Amendment 23, and said they were skeptical that government subsidies would continue for long.

McCann is manager of Sector 8, a coalition of vessels based in New Bedford. She said with the advent of COVID-19, wholesale fish prices have plummeted and boats are operating on slim margins. “We just don’t have the money to do this,” she told the council. “They are already tapped out, the prices and fees.” McCann and others accused regulators of failing to properly analyze the economic impact of its monitoring plan upon fishing communities.

Frank Mirarchi, a retired fisherman out of Scituate, charged that Amendment 23 would have a disproportionate impact upon smaller vessels and independent operators. “The small boats maybe will lead the parade, but the larger boats will follow until only a vertically integrated business that is able to catch, process, and market fish is going to survive in that environment,” he said. “I don’t want to see that happen. My life has been devoted to fishing in Scituate, and most of my friends who still fish feel very strongly about the sanctity and integrity of that port and other small ports like it.”

Mirarchi said smaller independent vessels might make $2,000 to $2,500 on an average day trip. He said that a $700 daily hit would eliminate 33 percent of the gross and 100 percent of the net profits, “because the net is a very small percentage of the gross.”

“Right now, you’re talking about an amendment at 100-percent at-sea monitoring, the cost of it makes every boat with three crew or less counting the captain, insolvent,” said Vito Giacaolone, a volunteer government affairs spokesman for the Northeast Seafood Coalition. (Update: the Northeast Seafood Coalition said Tuesday it is not against Amendment 23, but wants it based on sound analysis, a consideration of cost in relation to ex vessel revenues, and to offer true benefits to the fishery.)

Several opined that the entire New England fleet is now being punished for the actions of Carlos Rafael, the infamous New Bedford “Codfather.” From 2012 to 2016, Rafael falsely reported catch data to NOAA, made illegal dockside deals, and smuggled cash to the Azores through Logan International Airport. Rafael in 2016 was taken down by federal investigators posing as Russian mobsters. He pleaded guilty in March 2017 to falsifying fish quotas, tax evasion, and conspiracy, spent time in federal prison, was fined around $3 million, and ordered to sell his fleet and get out of the fishing business forever.

“A broad brush is being flung over all of us for what he did,” said McCann.

However, Plante, the NEFMC spokeswoman, told WBSM there is no punitive element embedded within the effort to improve catch data. "This is not a response to Carlos Rafael," she said. "Discussions (about how to improve to the catch accounting system) have been going on since before then."

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The NEMFC at its core is responsible for crafting rules to make sure the New England region is compliant with the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act. Magnuson-Stevens, passed in 1976, was designed to build sustainable marine fisheries. The New England agency is one of eight regional councils in the U.S. and is charged with conserving and managing fishery resources from three to 200 miles off the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

Commercial fishermen are accustomed to adapting to a parade of changing regulatory requirements. Amendment 16, adopted in 2010, introduced new measures to rebuild overfished stocks, including at-sea and dockside monitoring. Framework 48 discontinued dockside monitoring. In 2016, Framework 55 clarified that the primary goal of at-sea monitoring is to verify areas fished, catch, and discards by species and gear type by the most cost-effective means practicable. The NEFMC continues to state that it will endeavor to ensure that catch reporting requirements are fair and equitable for all.

NOAA Fisheries

However, the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation charges that the council's work has not been effective. The non-profit has also taken oblique swipes at fishermen, suggesting they won't follow the rules if they are not being watched. The non-profit litigators are cheerleaders for 100-percent at-sea monitoring, and have long maintained that Atlantic cod stocks are on the brink of collapse.

“Sustainable fisheries management relies on science-based decision-making. But for years, fishery managers in New England have operated from a place of incomplete information about how many fish are actually caught every year. Our fish stocks – including our iconic Atlantic cod – have suffered as a result,” the CLF said in a recent blog post.

In its written comments on Amendement 23, the law foundation states that current at-sea monitoring programs fail to ensure accountability and prevent overfishing. The lawyers say there is currently an incentive for fishing boats to misreport landings and discards. The CLF stated that “illegal discarding has grown out of hand,” especially with cod. “Again, it’s low-quota stocks like cod that are most vulnerable to misreporting,” the environmental law firm wrote. The foundation added that it supports full electronic monitoring, meaning cameras on every vessel operating 100 percent of the time. The CLF, which has been conducting a pro-Amendment-23 campaign, also sent fishery regulators a "cut and paste" letter submitted by more than 1,400 people.

"Right now, the true mortality of Atlantic cod is unknown due to illegal discarding and misreporting in the fishery. While this behavior may keep stocks within the annual catch limit on paper, it paints an inaccurate picture of how many fish are actually caught and killed," the letter states.

As for the cost argument, the CLF says at-sea monitoring in the U.S. has been funded by taxpayers to the tune of $30 million over three years, and that under the current system, taxpayers are not getting maximum value for their dollar. They do not oppose taxpayer funding for the monitoring program, at least in the short-term, “provided that these dollars do not continue to support a dysfunctional program that fails to ensure accountability and prevent overfishing.”

The New England Fishery Management Council's top priority “must be to achieve full accountability and rebuild New England’s once-thriving groundfish fishery for future generations,” the CLF wrote.

The comments were among hundreds submitted as part of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the council to support Amendment 23.

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At least one New England fisherman who has already adopted electronic at-sea monitoring says he thinks it’s a good idea -- even though he does not agree with the dire stock assessments coming from environmental groups and NOAA fisheries.

Jim Ford owns and operates the Lisa Ann III out of Newburyport, and for three years has participated in a pilot program run by The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental non-profit. As part of the program, he has four video cameras installed on his boat, and the video data gets uploaded to the cloud in real time.

Ford says he believes that cod are far more plentiful than fishery scientists would have the public believe, and that the cameras help document what's really happening.

“They can’t tell us it’s not there if we're showing them that it actually is,” Ford told WBSM. “It’s a good idea to show them what we’re catching. Nobody will believe you if you just write it down in your log.” Ford fishes in the Gulf of Maine, and says he catches plenty of cod.

Ford recently posted video from his boat to Facebook, suggesting that government scientists might not have the whole picture when it comes to counting Gulf of Maine cod:

Ford said that change is coming down the pike, whether fishermen like it or not, and that it's wise to make the upgrade while grants and federal subsidies are still available. "If the money is there, why not go for it?" he said. "It doesn't make sense to wait."

Over the summer, however, some critics warned that electronic monitoring is not yet ready for prime time or wide-scale deployment. Fishermen and their advocates asked the council to set realistic deadlines for implementation.

Ford said he has experienced few technical problems with his camera system, and added that the U.S., and New England in particular, is behind the times when it comes to fishing technology. He noted that many other countries require electronic at-sea monitoring. "Europe, even third-world countries are requiring it," he said. "It's not new. And as for technology, I've got nothing against fishing smarter."

Christoper McGuire, Marine Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, said an effort is underway to make deployment easy. He said participants in the electronic monitoring pilot program include fishermen from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

As for the underlying concept, McGuire told WBSM that fishermen are understandably frustrated with variations in stock assessments coming from scientists and regulators, and that one of the reasons "is that we're not putting very good data into the system."

He added that it's impossible to count all of the fish in the sea, but that what's taken out can be counted. That data can lead to better, less variable, and more consistent stock assessments. "You can't manage what you can't measure," he said.

Addressing the fact that the fishing industry must pay for the monitoring program, McGuire said that the decision was made back in 2010. "The question of who pays is not part of Amendment 23. But our Congressional delegation in Massachusetts and New England has provided a lot of support for New England fishermen, and has funded the cost of monitoring for the last decade."

The Nature Conservancy conducted an analysis showing the cost of electronic monitoring to be about half the cost of human observers. McGuire said he believes there will be plenty of private and public funding in the short term to pay for the cost of purchasing and installing equipment.

McGuire said it's a classic problem where the short-term costs obscure the ultimate gains: "Until we really get the science right and collect the information that we need, it's hard to set the fishery on a course that's going to demonstrate the long-term benefits."

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Meanwhile, it's not just individual fishermen pushing back against Amendment 23.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition, a trade organization, commissioned an independent legal review of the plan. The report by Nossaman, LLP charges that the council's environmental review of Amendment 23 is deeply flawed, inadequate, and out of compliance with federal laws. Among other things, the report states the council's Draft Environmental Impact Statement does not allow for a meaningful comparison of options and fails to properly analyze the socio-economic impacts of the new proposal.

A group of Massachusetts lawmakers representing fishing communities are also opposing Amendment 23.

"The Council should be focusing on strengthening fishing businesses during this time to support food security programs focused on harvesting of pollock, redfish, and haddock stocks," the state legislators wrote. "It should not be undermining groundfish business and groundfish sector viability at a time when fishing communities, the Commonwealth and nationa are faced with a health pandemic."

The letter opposing Amendment 23 was signed by Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and by senators Michael Rodrigues, Mark Montigny, Diana DiZoglio, and Patrick O'Connor. State representatives Will Crocker, Steven Howitt, Timothy Whelan, Lenny Mira, Susan Gifford, Matthew Muratore, Joan Meschino, Angleo Scaccia, Ann-Margaret Ferrante, Theodore Speliotis, and Paul Schmid also signed the letter.

Mary Serreze/Townsquare Media

The mayors of the state's two most-noted fishing ports also went on record. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell and Gloucester Mayor Sfatia Romeo Theken in August wrote to the council urging "a more mindful and realistic approach" to monitoring the groundfishery.

"The council's preferred option of 100% at-sea monitoring target for groundfish sectors is excessive," the letter from Mitchell and Theken reads. "Pursuing such regulatory action is completely misplaced when considering the social and economic impacts our communities are actively facing with the COVID-19 pandemic."

The groundfishery can't take much more, the two mayors asserted. The Port of New Bedford had 90 groundfish vessels in 2010 and by 2018, only 28 remained. Gloucester has lost two-thirds of its groundfish fleet since sectors and catch shares were implemented by the fishery management council in 2010. The council has failed to outline the true costs of the electronic at-sea monitoring program, the two mayors wrote, saying "the devil is in the details."

For its part, the largest vertically integrated seafood outfit in New Bedford said it supports improved monitoring to support sustainable management of the fishery, but questions the need for 100-percent coverage.

"More analysis is needed to determine the appropriate percentage of coverage, but we suspect it is less than 100%," wrote Gene Bergson, an executive with Blue Harvest Fisheries. Blue Harvest said with its eight active groundfish vessels, and with no government subsidy, 100-percent monitoring could cost them over $1 million annually. "This will have a very significant impact on our company's financial health," the letter states.

Blue Harvest said it's committed to working with NOAA fisheries to make electronic monitoring work, and said it also supports dockside monitoring - an option that's not currently on the table. "We believe that dockside monitoring is needed to verify vessel catch of all groundfish vessels, and that less than full dockside monitoring will lead to monitoring loopholes," Bergson wrote.

Plante, the New England Fisheries Management Council spokeswoman, said that the issue of dockside monitoring will be a discussion for another day. She emphasized that Wednesday's vote will cover two things: the percentage of at-sea monitoring, and whether it will be done via humans or electronically.

"We need a better monitoring program to improve the reliability and accountability of catch reporting," she said. "Accurate data on landings and discards is essential to support sustainable management of the sector-based groundfish fishery."

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