US Fishermen Exempt from Monitoring Requirements During Pandemic

Fishermen on a purse seine vessel in the Pacific.      Photo: AFP

NOAA Fisheries granted U.S. fishers an emergency waiver of the requirement for observers onboard their fishing vessels for the next 6 months — effectively eliminating monitoring and enforcement of the fishing industry.  NOAA Fisheries last week took this extraordinary step arguing it was necessary to “to protect public health, economic security, and food security, and to safeguard the health and safety of fishermen, observers, and other persons involved with such monitoring programs, while safeguarding the ability of fishermen to continue business operations and produce seafood for the Nation.”

Why This Matters:  NOAA’s waiver provides only a minimal justification — indeed, concerns over the health and safety of fishers would have them stay home rather than risk infecting an entire crew at sea potentially hundreds or even thousands of miles from shore.  Many fishing fleets are only marginally profitable.  But now, with no observers costs AND no way to detect or deter overfishing, they could violate fishing quotas and actually endanger the lives of their crews at the same time. The purse seine tuna fleet in American Samoa even argued that it needs to fish for tuna inside the boundaries of one of the few national parks in the ocean — the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument — an area that has been off-limits to fishing since 2015.

The Tuna Fishing Industry’s Nonsensical Claims

For example, the tuna purse seine fleet based in American Samoa lobbied for the waiver — they seemed to be using the coronavirus as an excuse to be able to be free from oversight. In a press release two weeks ago, the purse seine tuna industry said that “as canned tuna fly off shelves, operations of US boats are compromised.”

They then said, “Most Pacific Island countries that provide observers have pulled those observers off boats and called them home…We expect others to follow. The increasing travel constraints throughout the Pacific are complicating efforts to get crew, repair parts, technicians and supplies to boats in a timely fashion. And some ports where the boats would offload or transship fish are simply closed to them. This combination of factors not only puts the immediate operations of the fleet at risk, but also raises questions about the ability of this industry, along with many others, to overcome the broader economic and social disruption caused by the current pandemic.”

A week later, NOAA issued its emergency rule notice, saying it would last until the current COVID-19 pandemic is no longer deemed a public health emergency by the Secretary of Health and Human Services or September 23, 2020, with a possible extension of another 186 days beyond that.  It is understandable that monitors may not be available, that it will be difficult to get crews, ensure they are not infected, that global supply chains are disrupted, and that ports around the world will be closed. It is hard to understand why fishers deserve special treatment in the face of the pandemic or how this waiver will help them deal with those other issues besides finding observers — unless they are using unsafe vessels and crews, and landing the fish into black markets.

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