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NOAA to pay fishermen's at-sea monitoring costs

Commercial groundfishermen will not have to pay any at-sea monitoring costs in the current fishing year and will be reimbursed for an additional 25 percent of their 2017 fishing trips that included monitor coverage, NOAA Fisheries said Tuesday.

The expanded at-sea monitor funding, fueled by an additional $10.3 million secured by New Hampshire's U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in the current federal budget, means fishing vessels in the Northeast Multispecies groundfishery are eligible to be reimbursed for about 85 percent of their 2017 trips with at-sea monitors aboard.

"Effective at-sea monitoring is essential to the success and sustainability of this fishery," Jon Hare, the director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center said in a statement. "This $10.3 million increase from Congress for groundfish at-sea monitoring provides additional economic stability for the sector vessels."

The additional $10.3 million was part a $22.5 million appropriation to NOAA to fund both at-sea monitoring and court-mandated bycatch reporting requirements.

The increased funding will relieve commercial fishermen of a significant financial burden — estimated at $710 per day for boats with monitors — for at least this fishing year. It also halts — at least for now — NOAA Fisheries' strategy of increasingly shifting the costs of at-sea monitors onto fishermen until industry bears the full cost of monitor coverage.

"This is very welcome money and good news all the way around," said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition. "It's a lot for groundfishermen to pay for, especially as quotas decline and they lose access to key stocks."

But, Odell said, it's not just about getting the money.

"It's about making the most out of what you get, making sure that the data collected in this program is used wisely and efficiently," she said.

In 2016, NOAA Fisheries reimbursed monitoring costs for 80 percent of groundfish trips with monitors aboard. That dropped to 60 percent in 2017. 

Using existing funds, NOAA will reimburse industry an additional 25 percent of at-sea monitoring costs in the fishing year 2017, bringing the total reimbursement for that year to 85 percent.

"Negotiating this federal funding was one of my top priorities in the government spending bill, and as the appropriations process for next year moves forward, I’ll keep fighting to make sure our fishermen have the support and resources they need," Shaheen said Tuesday in a statement. 

The additional funding won't just benefit fishermen on the water.

NOAA said it will use the funds to support at-sea monitoring training, provide new sampling equipment and to "continue development of electronic monitoring technologies that may reduce the cost of, or improve, at-sea monitoring in the future."

The funding, according to NOAA, also will pay for the administration of the monitoring programs.