Observers and monitors, at-sea and shoreside, are an essential component of commercial fishing operations and provide critical information that is necessary to keep fisheries open and to provide sustainable seafood to our nation during this time. We recognize the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and as such, it has required us to adapt to changing circumstances. Our adaptation is multi-faceted. Across the Pacific and Western Pacific, the majority of fisheries require full observer coverage; on the East Coast, the majority of fisheries require partial coverage. The differences in the requirements are an important reason that we have used our ability to waive observer coverage in some regions and fisheries, and not in others.
In addition, how fisheries operate varies regionally and even within a region, including factors such as whether crew or observers need to cross state lines. Some of these operational aspects have allowed the agency and observer service providers to more quickly adapt processes and procedures for deployment. In other cases, we’ve needed more time. For example, in the Northeast, because of the number of different jurisdictions, additional time was needed to finalize our observer redeployment protocols. Consequently, we delayed observer coverage for an additional month. Throughout most regions though, individual trips and vessels in partial-coverage fleets continue to be released from coverage on a case-by-case basis. Overall, our approach to observer coverage and monitoring allows us to be as adaptable as possible given all of the variability across our regions and fisheries.
Finally, the contractual relationships between industry and NOAA Fisheries and observer service providers vary by region and sometimes within a region, affecting what ability, if any, the agency has to make changes to protocols and processes.
In general, observers create no more risk than a crew member, although we do have allowances for vessel-by-vessel waivers in situations where that may not be the case, and observer provider companies are generally able to match precautionary measures that vessels impose on crew members. Ultimately, within our limited authority, our goal is to have observers and monitors following the same safety protocols that fishermen are following.
Providing seafood to the country remains an essential function even in these extraordinary times and adequately monitoring United States fisheries remains an essential part of that process. We will continue to monitor all local public health notifications, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates, and adjust our processes as needed. We are committed to the health and safety of fishermen, observers, and others while fulfilling our mission to maintain our nation's seafood supply and conserving marine life.
Below is an update as of the situation in each of our regions as it pertains to observer coverage:
Regional Snapshot of Current Observer Waivers
NOAA Fisheries is in the process of positioning observers at select ports throughout Alaska to meet monitoring objectives for vessels in the Partial Coverage Category of the North Pacific groundfish and Pacific Halibut fisheries. NOAA Fisheries has identified ports in Alaska where current travel and lodging conditions allow observers to meet and maintain applicable national, state, and local health mandates for deployment into the commercial fisheries. The region may release trips from observer coverage on a case-by-case basis for vessels in the Partial Coverage Category, as needed, in consideration of national, state, and local travel and safety requirements. No deviation has been made from the 2020 Annual Deployment Plan for vessels using electronic monitoring or to the requirement that vessels continue to log trips in Observer Declare and Deploy System (ODDS). Observer coverage continues for vessels in the Full Coverage Category of regional fisheries.
West Coast Region
Beginning at 12 am on May 1, 2020, fishery observer and catch monitor coverage was again required per existing regulations for all commercial fishing vessels and first receivers in required West Coast fisheries. Waivers of partial, scientific observer coverage are being issued on a vessel-by-vessel basis, including for the portion of the fleet using electronic monitoring. Waivers of observer coverage will continue on a vessel-by-vessel basis, as needed, in consideration of national, state, and local travel and safety requirements. The region is also ready to provide waivers for large purse seine vessels unable to get an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC)-approved observer for tuna fisheries in the eastern Pacific Ocean.
Pacific Island Region
Observer coverage requirements continue in all required fisheries. Although contracted observers are being placed on most Hawaii pelagic longline trips in Hawaii, waivers of observer coverage on a vessel-by-vessel basis will continue, as needed, in consideration of evolving national, state, territory, and local travel and safety requirements. International observer requirements for tuna purse seine vessels have been waived by the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission until July 31, 2020.
Beginning at 12 a.m. on May 5, 2020, observer coverage was again required per existing regulations for the following fisheries: South Atlantic Penaeid Shrimp, South Atlantic Rock Shrimp, South Atlantic Snapper-Grouper, Southeast Gillnet, Gulf of Mexico Commercial Reef Fish, Gulf of Mexico Shrimp, Atlantic Highly Migratory Species (HMS) Pelagic Longline, Shark Bottom Longline (Atlantic HMS), Shark Gillnet (Atlantic HMS). Waivers of observer coverage on a vessel-by-vessel basis will continue, as needed, in consideration of national, state, and local travel and safety requirements. The region continues to work with the regional observer provider to finalize their observer redeployment plans to support the safe and effective redeployment of observers in the region.
Greater Atlantic Region
The region has extended the existing observer waiver exempting all vessels issued Greater Atlantic Region permits from the requirements to carry an observer or at-sea monitor. This waiver is in effect through July 31. When deployment resumes, we will include allowances for vessel by vessel waivers in situations for which there are medical or other issues where the observer may pose an additional risk beyond that posed by a normal crew member (e.g., small vessel with isolated crew). We will continue to work with the regional observer provider to finalize their observer redeployment plans to support the safe and effective redeployment of observers in the region.