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Our view: A step forward on at-sea monitoring

The New England fishing industry is enjoying a rare victory over federal regulators, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced earlier this week that it would pick up the cost of at-sea monitoring of boats this year. What’s more, NOAA will reimburse fishermen for some of their out-of-pocket expenses from 2017.

While that’s good news, there is still work to be done. There is no guarantee the new policy -- less a promise of change than a one-time concession tucked in the federal budget — will continue past this year. And beyond the cost, the expensive, inefficient at-sea monitoring program, which spreads a limited amount of monitors among a large number of vessels for an undetermined number of trips, must be able to provide accurate information regulators and fishermen can trust.

First, credit where credit is due. It was New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen who tucked the $10.3 million into the federal budget to pay for the monitoring program, which is meant to ensure fishermen are adhering to regulations that limit how much and what type of fish they can catch. The boat is required to allow a NOAA monitor to tag along on trips and record what has been caught.

Those sessions come at great expense to fishermen — about $710 a trip, on average. And being forced to pay for monitoring rankles fishermen, and rightly so. Imagine having to personally pay to have a state trooper sit in your back seat, looking over your shoulder at your speedometer as you drive your car down the highway.

“This is very welcome money and good news all the way around,” Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, told reporter Sean Horgan. “It’s a lot for groundfishermen to pay for, especially as quotas decline and they lose access to key stocks.”

Odell noted there’s more to the issue than the cost of the monitoring. 

“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.

We agree. If the monitoring data is going to be used to set policy, it needs to be trustworthy. And a long-term funding solution — one that doesn’t dip directly into fishermen’s pockets — is needed. Given that $10.3 million is a small drop in the ocean that is the federal budget, it shouldn’t be a difficult problem to solve.