On March 4, I had the opportunity to provide testimony to the Pacific Fishery Management Council and wanted to share that with those who are interested in our work at MTC. This is a long blog entry, but it encapsulates a variety of challenges and fairness issues in our industry.
Good morning, my name is Heather Mann and I represent the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative.
I wanted to take a few minutes to share some of what’s been on my mind as we begin this March Council meeting – so I’ll jump right in. There is simply not enough capacity in this process to take on all the groundfish issues that need to be addressed, let alone enough capacity to take on all the issues across all sectors and fisheries in our region. And by capacity, I mean Council floor time, NMFS staff capacity, the GMT workload. This was a problem prior to covid and now, one year into covid, I believe that the management process is on the cusp of finding itself so far “behind” that it can never catch up.
In the meantime, fundamental improvements that need to be accomplished and implemented for our fisheries are either stalled or in some cases tabled indefinitely. Emergency rules are proposed that could bring some immediate relief but approving and implementing the rules causes even further NMFS workload issues. And you have at least one ER before you this morning. Because of the capacity issues we end up having Sectors and gear types pitted against each other as we try to convince council members and NMFS that that particular sector’s fishery deserves the priority.
This is an unfair position for all participants to be in – stakeholders and decision-makers alike. The industry tries to compel decision makers and decision makers are forced to make decisions that literally could mean life or death for a family fishing business. And right now, this is all exacerbated by the pandemic and everything is done remotely, which adds to the isolation and misunderstandings and hard feelings that many are experiencing.
For example, we heard in the GAP this morning that NMFS is tracking vaccine distribution but not actively pursuing vaccines because they are prevented from doing so since vaccine distribution is up to the states and NOAA is a federal body. You had a bit of discussion about this with Dr. Warner. Let me say, I have been working tirelessly to find ways to get my fishermen vaccinated as I did to get them tested prior to the 2020 hake season and I do not understand why NMFS would be passive instead of proactive and aggressive ensuring their survey staff are deemed essential and get them vaccinated. This may seem like a small issue to be frustrated about, but I believe it is critical that surveys happen this year, no matter what.
In this situation it is not just the harvesters, processors and communities that are negatively impacted. It is obvious that the situation has put extreme strain on advisors, the management teams, Council members and staff as well as NMFS and state employees. I have come to recognize that the stress on managers, NMFS employees and others is very real and I am truly empathetic. The stress on industry members is also crushing. Not only are our fishing businesses struggling to overcome unprecedented hurdles due to the pandemic, the regulatory improvements and changes we so desperately need are caught up in a quagmire of inadequate government capacity and bureaucratic red tape. The current situation is untenable and unsustainable.
As we approach the meeting this week and the decisions that need to be made, I’m left thinking about essential needs of fishing businesses. I’m thinking about sacrifices and results and paths forward. And I’m thinking about fairness.
The trawl ITQ program has resulted in tremendous conservation gains, but as you have heard time and again, the economic benefits have been realized much slower, and not at all for some. We could not have rationalized the fishery without the industry-sponsored trawl Buyback program and the capacity reduction which followed. The flip side of that is the trawl industry having to compensate the government for retiring 91 vessels and all associated permits. That has cost the remaining active trawl fishermen over $40.7 million dollars since 2005 and as of January we still owe another $12 million and this is after approximately $6 million was removed from the outstanding balance thanks to legislators securing an appropriation to remove excess interest due to the original NMFS delay in promulgating repayment regulations.
With the rationalization program came 200% monitoring: 100% on the boat and 100% at the processor all on the industry’s dime. This is way more coverage than any other west coast fishery by far, and the other sectors that are partially observed do not have to pay for that monitoring. On top of all these expenses, we have been writing checks to the government for cost recovery – since 2014 the trawl industry has paid over $11,020,176 million dollars to the agency. Tack on the buyback loan payments during the same time and the trawl fishermen on the west coast have paid over $30.8 million dollars to the government in the last seven year. Almost thirty-one million dollars in the last seven years. And don’t forget, this money is deducted off the top of every delivery made to a shoreside or at-sea processor.
I learned last week of a family trawl business in Newport who made the painful decision last year to no longer participate in the groundfish fishery. They have been delivering groundfish into our port for decades, but they can no longer afford to participate under the trawl rationalization program. They are not the first to make that decision. They probably won’t be the last.
Because of the sacrifices of the trawl industry and our commitment to sustainable fisheries we have an amazing conservation story on the west coast. Rockfish species have been rebuilt decades in advance of when they were expected to. Trawlers and non-trawlers alike have benefited because of the actions of the trawl industry. Our 200% monitoring reduces uncertainty in stock assessments and that benefits all groundfish users across sectors and gear types. Our voluntary commitment to utilizing SeaState as a monitoring service and sharing information in the whiting fisheries has resulted in even more spatial knowledge for managers and decision makers that would otherwise be unavailable – we pay hundreds of thousands of our dollars for this above and beyond what the direct costs of participating are.
Our willingness to voluntarily shut down tens of thousands of square miles of ocean to fishing and arbitrarily set strict harvest guidelines for ourselves in order to minimize chinook interactions even though the best available science says we could catch 19,500 chinook in the trawl fleet with no jeopardy to ESA listed stocks – this shows our dedication and willingness to work for the greater good of all fishermen and sectors. This too comes at a cost to us – whether it’s the fuel cost to move because of artificial limits that we place on ourselves or the time lost – it some seasons it has cost mothership sector participants more than $500,000 for these voluntary but costly moves.
And now we enter a week where the trawl industry will have to fight to get our issues prioritized. The mothership sector has not performed as was intended and some participants are routinely leaving hundreds of millions of pounds of whiting worth millions of dollars in the water. The fixes we have proposed that could lead to meaningful improvements could take a long time to implement. And we have been notified that in order to work on fixing the sector the trawl catcher vessels will be charged cost recovery dollars so that NMFS can recoup their expenses for their time working to repair a sector which has never performed as intended.
We have an Electronic Monitoring program that is set to move to regulations on January 1, 2022 even though there are a myriad of problems with the proposed program – not the least of which is a transition of all expenses to the industry participants versus the cost-sharing approach that exists under the current EFP. And the trawl industry is being charged cost recovery dollars to develop the unsupported EM regulatory program too.
There is a good chance that non-trawl issues will be prioritized at this meeting. Probably at the detriment to trawl fisheries. And the irony here is that a lot of the opportunities that other sectors are looking to take advantage of come as a direct result of the work and sacrifices of the trawl industry. Sectors with very little monitoring or accountability are benefitting from the 200% monitoring that the trawl sector endures and pays for. Don’t get me wrong- I believe that all sectors and fisheries and fishermen deserve to have their fisheries managed to achieve optimum yield. I fully support fishermen getting access to the non-trawl RCA. But I do believe the trawl sector faces a unique situation. We have all the financial and operational burden of being rationalized, but we do not yet enjoy all the benefits of being in a rationalized fishery.
I respectfully ask decision makers and managers to keep that mind as you make choices on actions and priorities this week. We are counting on you not to forget about us, not to forget about the huge financial burden we face to participate in this fishery and not to forget that many of the opportunities other sectors are looking to are available in great part because of the efforts and at the expense of the trawl fleet. The trawl groundfish industry contributes greatly to fishing communities in all three states and I and others stand ready to continue to work with all our partners in this process as we move forward. Please don’t forget about the trawl industry and the unique situation we are in.
Thank you for your consideration and I’d be happy to answer any questions.