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NOAA to foot monitoring costs

Timing may not be everything, but it sure counts for a lot. Just ask New Hampshire groundfisherman David Goethel.

Goethel, who had persevered through cascading years of escalating regulation, slashed fishing quotas, a failed lawsuit and, more recently, the prospect of paying the full cost of at-sea monitoring, was ready to get out of commercial groundfishing.

"I had planned to sell my boat this summer," Goethel said Wednesday, referring to his 44-foot, Hampton, New Hampshire-ported Ellen Diane. "I was done."

But not now.

Last week, following a full year of working behind the scenes with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Goethel got the news he and other groundfishermen wanted to hear:

Shaheen, the lead Democrat on a pivotal Senate appropriation subcommittee, was able to insert language and secure $10.3 million in additional funding that directs — some fishing stakeholders would say forces — NOAA Fisheries to fully fund at-sea monitoring in 2018 for the first time in three years.

"All of the credit should go to Sen. Shaheen," Goethel said. "She just wouldn't give up on this. She personally took it and guided it through the byzantine and frustrating budget process."

Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, echoed Goethel's comments about Shaheen's leadership and also said the full funding comes at a critical time for the Northeast groundfish fleet.

"Sen. Shaheen and her office are really the ones who spearheaded this," Odell said. "She really knows how important this is for fishermen. Viability continues to be a concern for many fishing interests and at-sea monitoring is a huge burden on the fishery."

In January, NOAA Fisheries said it would mandate at-sea monitoring coverage on 15 percent of the Northeast multispecies groundfish trips in 2018 — down from 16 percent in 2017. The agency, however, did not say whether it would reimburse monitoring costs or leave them entirely to fishermen.

NOAA Fisheries reimbursed groundfishermen for 60 percent of their montitoring costs in 2017, down from 80 percent in 2016. Prior to 2016, NOAA Fisheries assumed all at-sea monitoring costs.

But the writing seemed to be on the wall.

Odell said NOAA Fisheries told industry stakeholders a couple months ago the agency did not envision reimbursing any of the monitoring costs in 2018, increasing the likelihood that more groundfish dayboats would be forced out of active fishing.

Longtime Gloucester fisherman Al Cottone, who also serves as executive director of the city's Fisheries Commission, said the new at-sea monitoring funding could help convince some fishermen to return to more active fishing or allow others to continue apace without having to foot the bill.

"Especially with the small uptick in some quotas, this could allow some guys to fish a little bit more," Cottone said. "Anybody that was scared away by the prospect of having to pay for at-sea monitoring now can take another look at it."

The appropriation of $22.5 million to NOAA Fisheries' budget directs the agency to fully fund both at-sea monitoring and the court-mandated bycatch reporting requirements for Northeast groundfish boats.

"This literally gives us a lifeline, not just New Hampshire boats, but for all the smaller boats still fishing, including those out of Gloucester," Goethel said. "It couldn't have come at a better time."

As part of the final federal budget for fiscal year 2018, Shaheen also secured another $2 million in new funding for New England groundfish research, including the impacts on changing climatic conditions and the warming waters of the fishery.