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Fishing Money found for at-sea monitors

In late December, on the doorstep to the Christmas holidays, New England's groundfishermen received an early present.

As part of a $1.4 trillion spending package, the U.S. Senate passed a $79.4 billion appropriations bill that includes another $10.3 million for NOAA Fisheries — once again secured by New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — to fully fund at-sea monitoring in the Northeast groundfish fishery for the 2020 fishing season that begins May 1.

When President Donald Trump signed the bill into law the next day, the mandated shouldering of the full financial weight of at-sea monitoring by the groundfish industry — at a cost of up to $700 per day per vessel — had been deferred for at least another fishing season.

"This is obviously very good news for our commercial groundfishermen," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition. "At-sea monitoring has become such a huge financial issue for everyone in the fishery."

It was the second consecutive year that Shaheen, a ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, bailed out the groundfish industry on at-sea monitoring. Shaheen secured the first $10.3 million in the 2018 appropriations process that fully funded at-sea monitoring during the current fishing season.

The 2020 appropriation to the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA Fisheries, contains other protections and benefits for groundfishermen, as well.

It directs NOAA to submit to Congress a spending plan for the $10.3 million as an assurance it specifically will be spent on at-sea monitoring and not diverted to other programs or uses.

"It is critical that NOAA Fisheries strictly adheres to the intent and directives of Congress and does not seek to misuse these funds to pursue their own objectives," Odell said. "The critical issue is how to make sure the money will be available to the industry to offset or fully cover the costs of at-sea monitoring."

The appropriation also provides $2.5 million for groundfish research "with a focus on the effects of changing climatic conditions and warming waters on the fishery, including stock health and natural mortality."

Within the $2.5 million, "$500,000 shall be obligated to develop methods for improving and increasing utilization of a full range of available fishery dependent data to better inform groundfish stock abundance estimates," the law states.

It also wades into the area of electronic monitoring and reporting at a time when the New England Fishery Management Council is hitting the homestretch on the completion of its massive amendment to determine future monitoring coverage levels for the groundfish fishery.

The law directs NOAA Fisheries to work with industry and the management councils "to develop appropriate cost-sharing arrangements that are commensurate with the ex-vessel value of the fishery" during the development and implementation of electronic monitoring.

It also encourages NOAA Fisheries to continue conducting long-time stock surveys cooperatively with the fishing industry and fishery managers from individual states.