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New England fishermen win reprieve from at-sea monitoring fees

At 64, David Goethel thought it might be time to quit fishing and get rid of his boat, a 44-foot trawler named Ellen Diane.

"I was planning on selling it this summer," said Goethel, a commercial fisherman from Hampton, N.H. "There's just simply no money left. The tax accountant confirmed that to me the other day."

But Goethel figures he'll keep working now that Congress has thrown him a temporary lifeline, beginning May 1. That's when New England's groundfishing season opens and the federal government will once again pay for the full cost of at-sea monitoring, at least for 2018.

"It's been a long struggle, but now we've got some good news," Goethel said.

NOAA Fisheries had planned to make New England fishermen pay the costs this year. But Congress intervened, including $10 million for the monitoring program in the omnibus spending bill approved last month.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who got the money included in the measure, said the fees would have represented a big financial hit for fishermen, with charges of up to $700 per day.

"New Hampshire fishermen face enough daunting challenges — the last thing they need right now is to be further burdened with a costly regulatory fee," said Shaheen, the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. "We should be focused on making it easier — not harder — for our commercial fishing industry to compete in today's market."

The use of monitors has long been an issue of contention for New England fishermen, including Goethel, who last year asked the Supreme Court to take up his case challenging NOAA Fisheries' fees (Greenwire, July 13, 2017).

But the high court declined to do so after the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the case, saying it had not been filed within a 30-day period as required under federal law.

Up until two years ago, NOAA Fisheries assumed responsibility for all monitoring costs, but the agency began passing them along to fishermen as its budgets tightened.

As a result, NOAA Fisheries reimbursed 85 percent of the at-sea monitoring costs in 2016, but that fell to 60 percent last year.

At a public meeting in 2015, Goethel told John Bullard, then NOAA's Greater Atlantic regional administrator, that he and the agency "lie for a living" and that NOAA could easily pay for the monitors if it wanted to keep New England fishermen in business.

"There's a reason Donald Trump is president today — and this is a microcosm of it," Goethel said in a recent interview. "There are so many people dissatisfied with government at all levels."

Goethel said NOAA Fisheries should either pay all of the costs or get rid of the monitoring program altogether.

"It was just a bad idea from Day One," he said. "It's unnecessary. It's a waste of money. Whether it's the taxpayer paying it or the fisherman paying it, it's still a waste of money. That's the real permanent solution."

NOAA Fisheries calls the monitors its "eyes and ears on the water," keeping track of what's caught and thrown back by commercial fishing vessels. The agency uses the data to help assess fish populations and set fishing quotas, among other things.

The job requirements include knowing how to identify and properly handle various fish species; being able to work long hours, manage seasickness, and swim or tread water; and having an "aptitude for maintaining diplomacy, professionalism and interpersonal relations in a challenging environment."

In 2016, 85 at-sea monitors worked 1,830 "sea days" in New England, said John Ewald, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries.

But he said the agency has 45 days under the new law to come up with a final estimate on how much it will cost and how many monitors will be required for this year.

"However, based on draft projections, we are confident that the FY18 omnibus provides funding to cover the full costs," Ewald said.

Environmental groups strongly assert that observer coverage is critical to the agency's ability to accurately track the amount of catch and to protect species.

Eric Bolinder, counsel at Cause of Action Institute, a group that represented Goethel in the lawsuit, argues that eliminating the monitoring program would be a good way for Congress to curtail spending. But he added that the omnibus bill means that "fishermen will get to keep on fishing," at least temporarily.

"This is not a permanent solution but, for now, it will allow fishermen to stay afloat," Bolinder said.

In the long run, many industry officials say, it would make more sense to replace human monitors with cameras, making it less expensive and easier to watch more boats.

But Goethel said he wants nothing to do with that idea, either.

"I personally think it would be completely un-American," he said. "If you make this mandatory, you're getting another lawsuit."

Goethel, who was born in Boston and began fishing at 13, fishes year-round, for flounder and cod in the spring and fall, shrimp in the winter, and herring and silver hake in the summer. After getting a degree in biology, he worked as a research biologist and has been an adviser to seven state and federal fishery management boards, including the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Until Congress provided the new money for monitoring, Goethel said he was making plans to call it quits and figuring out how to sell his boat.

"The for-sale signs were already written up," he said.

Now, Goethel said, the future is uncertain.

"This is certainly a big burden lifted," he said. "I'm going to fish this summer, and I'm going to see what happens."