CRESCENT CITY Groundfish trawl fishermen may find an unwelcome federal visitor on board for some of their voyages beginning later this summer.
One Crescent City fisherman predicted that such an observer will be the most hated person on the ocean.
Elizabeth Clarke, director of the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division of the National Marine Fisheries Service, came to Crescent City Wednesday to explain how the services new mandatory observer program will work.
The goal is to improve management of groundfish by improving the estimates of total catch and discarded by-catch, Clarke said.
Clarke and Fisheries Biologist Teresa Turk were on a tour of the Pacific coast to quell fears about the program that could affect every groundfish trawler from Bellingham, Wash., to Ventura, Calif.
They told the half-dozen Crescent City fishermen attending the meeting that fishermen around the country have had many of the same concerns each time an observer program has started up.
Most say the observers are not as bad as they thought, said Clarke. Some enjoy their company.
Turk said the observers will be employed by a contractor. She would prefer they were federal employees. It would be easier to hold the boat owners harmless from a liability standpoint.
There was a lot of pressure for outside contractors for a reduction in government and government employees, said Clarke.
She said the fisheries service cant completely eliminate the liability of owners for what happens to observers on their boats.
In the end, the fishermen said that was the one issue that would keep them from supporting the program.
One said he believed if he hired a lawyer to keep the fisheries service from putting an observer on his boat until the liability insurance issue was resolved, he could win in court.
Clarke said he wasnt the first fisherman to tell her that.
Weve asked the insurance contractor to provide an incredible package, she said, but we cant make your boats liability zero.
We were hoping by insuring them a lot, she said of the observers, we could minimize the cost to you. People were stunned by the amount we were asking for.
Turk said observers in the Northwest will have more insurance than in any other region of the United States. Still, Clarke recommended boat owners buy more.
If I were a fisherman, she said, I would have some liability insurance with this.
Clarke has looked into what that would cost a boat owner, and she has heard estimates ranging from $50 to $1,500 a month.
Were getting way different estimates from everybody, she said. Theyre increasing as we go down the coast.
She said shes also been warned about companies with lower quotes going bankrupt.
One fisherman said he paid more than $4,000 to insure one crewman for two months.
Where insurance carriers have more experience with observer programs, such as in Hawaii, insurance runs about $50 to $100 a month, said Turk.
Clarke asked the boat owners to send me quotes and Ill do what I can to minimize costs.
I cant emphasize how motivated I am to get this issue resolved, she said. Is there a legal way to hold you harmless, or reimburse you? Im looking at it. I have been since March.
Turk will attend a national workshop on insurance next week to try to find a solution to the problem.
Resolved or not, Clarke said, The regulations are what they are. We will move forward and work on it at the same time.
She reminded fishermen that no legal challenge over insurance has shut down an observer program yet.
Im surprised observer programs across the nation havent resolved the issue, but they are not having problems, she said.
If you hire someone looking to sue, said a fisherman, Im out of business.
Clarke said the regulations went into effect on May 24. Trawl boats from every port on the Pacific coast will be selected at random to carry observers in the first two-month period. There will be 20 observers for the entire coast.
One fisherman asked, What are you going to do with the data when you see us catching 10 times more fish than you thought there were, but you say that species is endangered?
A lot of fishermen were asking for observer programs, said Tim Broadman, a special agent with the fisheries service from Eureka. They kept telling us, You guys dont know whats going on out there.
Clarke said, My hope is more information wont be a bad thing. Observers will write down why youre discarding fish. Is it because of regulations? The council needs to hear that.
The program was designed with the help of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and state fishery agencies.
The first boats selected will be notified in June, though observers wont be hired and complete training before late August.
The boats selected will be required to take an observer on all their trips for a two month period. Observers will cycle through all the boats during two years. Boats will not be selected for consecutive periods.
About 25 percent of observer time will be spent on the 2001 fixed-gear sablefish fishery and other pilot programs.
Selected boats must give the fisheries service 24 hours notice before setting out to fish, so that an observer can make the trip.
A fisherman said his crew is on-call. He asked what would happen if the observer didnt show up in time.
Clarke said he could call the observer program and ask for a waiver to go out without an observer.
Fishermen will also be able to notify the fisheries service when they dont plan to fish for groundfish.
Those boats will then be placed in a holding pattern and must notify the service when they resume groundfish fishing.
Boats selected to carry observers must also obtain a dockside Coast Guard safety inspection safety decal. Clarke said the Coast Guard has put on more inspectors to meet the expected demand.
Captains must provide observers with the same food and accommodations they do for their crew.
One fisherman said he doesnt have bunks or a toilet on his boat, and the crew brown bags their meals. Clarke said the observer would live the same way while on his boat.
Whenever possible, the observer and field coordinator will visit the boat in advance, meet with the captain and crew and work out the best way to collect samples on board.
Clarke said coordinators may also go on a couple of trial runs so they know what the issues are before they send their observers out.
To minimize costs to owners, the fisheries service will provide some needed equipment such as four-man life rafts for boats with three-man rafts for a crew of three.
Clarke said observers may bring other equipment too. They will bring their own survival suits.
One fisherman asked who would pay if the captain had to bring the boat back in because the observer was sick or didnt want to be out in rough conditions.
What you guys are asking is not feasible for us economically, he said.
Turk said no observer program compensates boat owners for such costs.
Clarke said this may be the first program of its kind in the Northwest, but observers have served for years nationwide on big and small boats.
Because the fisheries service wants this program to succeed, she said, only experienced observers who have proven themselves in other observer programs will be hired.
That will include some women, said Clarke. The federal government cant discriminate in hiring. Nationwide, about 25 percent of observers are women.
We dont get to select an observer with regard to sex, she said.
If a woman has a problem with serving on a boat with no toilet or one sleeping compartment, said Clarke, shed better say so before she is hired.
One fisherman said he has no toilet on his 41-foot vessel and he doesnt allow women aboard.
Clarke said if he gets a woman observer, she will bring a bucket or do whatever the crew does.
She said it may bother the crew more than the woman. The women who will be hired will be used to working under any conditions.
Turk said, I was on a Russian boat in Alaska. Its a great weight-loss program, let me tell you.
A fisherman asked what would happen if he refused to take an observer.
Clarke said if a selected boat refused, it would be reported to the enforcement side of the fisheries service.
She said she and the observers work for the scientific side of the service and are not involved in enforcement.
She said Bill Robinson, who does work in the enforcement side, wanted to accompany her to the meetings, but she told him that was the last thing she needed right now.
Broadman said boats reported to the enforcement side would be assessed a fine and could fight it in court.
Another fisherman asked what would happen if he took his boats out of the water for repairs during those two-months he would have to carry an observer.
Clarke said that boat would just go to the top of the list when it returned to the water. She cautioned the fishermen that the people running the program were not born yesterday.
Another fisherman asked what would happen if he changed fisheries for those two months.
Turk said an observer could still be on board. She said groundfish are caught in shrimp fisheries too.
So far, said Clarke, five contractors have bid on the observer program.
Once chosen, the contractor will send 40 people to two weeks of training beginning Aug. 6. Then the 20 observers will start going out on boats.
Crescent City and Brookings-Harbor will each have one observer living there. Coos Bay will get two.
Turk said, We want long-term employees who are happy with their communities.
Clarke said an observer may start a voyage in Brookings, but end up in Charleston. Coordinators may have to taxi them back home.
Coordinators will be federal employees. There will also be half-time coordinators employed by the states.
Initially, the program will be for trawlers, not hook and line fishermen, except for one sablefish fishery.
Clarke said the observer program has no sunset date, but will evolve as it goes along.
Fishermen can contact the Northwest Groundfish Observer Program by phone at (206) 860-3381.