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The council’s restructuring of the observer program would put watchers on halibut vessels and ground-fish vessels under 60 feet. In Sitka, the biggest groundfish catch is sablefish, or blackcod.


The idea is to obtain better information on bycatch, which is any fish caught that the vessel wasn’t originally targeting.


But commercial fishermen have some concerns about the program, including its cost.


“From a fisherman’s income, it’s 2 percent right off the top of what you get paid at the dock,” said Jeff Farvour, who fishes for blackcod and halibut.


Farvour said if the observer program restructuring gets final approval October, the National Marine Fisheries Service will take that 2 percent he referenced from the value of a vessel’s catch at the dock, which is referred to as the ex-vessel price.


 “And often, those kind of expenses are passed on to the crew, and there’s no way to control that,” Farvour said. “They way they had it lined out in the analysis, they said a fee of up to 2 percent of your gross revenues. One percent would be put in by the processor, one percent would be put in by the fishermen. But again, there’s no way to enforce that, so I think it’s safe to assume that the 2 percent would be borne solely by the fishermen, and some if not all of that by the crew.”


Farvour is also concerned about space limitations.


“There are people that sleep on the floor already, especially boats with families and whatnot,” he said. “There’s a lot of concerns from my aspect – I’m a crew member – about crew loss jobs.”


In other words, if a small vessel has to make room for an observer, it might have to leave a crew member back on the beach. And that leaves the crew member out of a job.


Linda Behnken is executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, or ALFA. She says the halibut and sablefish fleet already pays a management and monitoring fee of 3 percent of the ex-vessel price.


“The data they provided showed our fleet will be paying 25 percent of the costs for the entire Gulf and Bering Sea restructured fisheries, even though we only account for 2 percent of the fish caught,” Behnken said.


ALFA was asking the council to instead impose only a 1 percent fee. And ALFA wanted the whole fleet to be considered as one, no matter the vessel size.


“The council went a little bit different direction,” said Behnken. “They broke our Sablefish fleet under 60 (feet) and over 60, and then included the whole halibut fleet, and included all trawl vessels under 60.”


Right now, sablefish vessels under 60 feet have no observer, those between 60 and 125 feet are observed on 30 percent of their trips, and vessels over 125 feet are observed on every trip.


“With this new program, they have the flexibility to deploy observers where they see the need,” she said. “And that’s to address the manipulation of observer coverage and the lack of observer coverage that they’ve flagged as a problem.”


Behnken says in order to fulfill the obligation of having an observer aboard on two days, some people would go out just before midnight, not catch anything, and come back after midnight. And some vessels were going to different places with observers than they would without them.


“So the information we were getting on catch and bycatch was not representative of the fleet catch,” she said, “and then there were people who were bothered by the fact that the under 60-foot fleet did not have coverage.”


Behnken says the restructuring is an effort to address those differences. But the bottom line, she says, is that right now, how that would be done isn’t very clear.


The North Pacific Fishery Management Council heard testimony on that during its meeting, including from Wendy Alderson, who fishes from a 49-foot vessel. She says the program needs federal funding.


“Out of 10 regional observer programs that cover 29 fisheries, there are only two that are not federally funded,” Alderson told the council on Friday. “We’re one of them.”


Alderson also said that under the new program, she and her husband would not be able to make their annual payments on the loans they used to buy into their individual fishing quotas. And she proposed an alternative to having a human observer aboard.


“At 47 feet, our boat is part of the small boat fleet,” she said. “And I would like to see an option for fixed-gear boats under 58 feet to be able to carry an electronic monitoring alternative to a ride-along observer. We could probably fit an observer on our boat. A small one. It would probably be a little tight. I think there’s a little room under the galley table. My husband could sleep under there. There’s just a lot of small boats that can’t fit an observer.”


Alderson says she understands the need to improve the program, but she hopes the council will take another look at some of the concerns.  The council has asked its staff to go back into the plan and try to paint a clearer picture based on the concerns heard at the meeting. The measure will be up for final action at the next regular meeting in October in Anchorage.


KCAW’s Robert Woolsey contributed to this report.


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