Considered essential workers, federal fishery observers have continued monitoring Pacific commercial operations during the pandemic, but COVID-19 restrictions have forced them to reduce — or even cease — operations in some areas.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration dispatches observers to travel aboard fishing vessels to monitor the crew’s practices and what they catch – including any bycatch of endangered species. The goal is to preserve fish stocks and protect maritime ecosystems.

“Providing seafood to the country is an essential function, and adequate monitoring of our fisheries is important to the process,” NOAA spokeswoman Celeste Hanley said. “NOAA Fisheries has processes in place to maintain fishery operations and the monitoring necessary for sustainable management.”

However, fears of coronavirus spread prompted the agency to announce in June that it would give its regional administrators, office directors and science center directors the ability to temporarily waive observer requirements for vessels on a case-by-case basis based on local conditions.

Fishing boats near Pier 38 at Honolulu Harbor.
Fishery observers have continued monitoring fishing activity in the Pacific Islands throughout the pandemic, but operations have been cut back in some areas. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The NOAA Fisheries said last week that its Pacific Islands Regional Office has been able to maintain 100% observer coverage of shallow-set longline fishing trips in Hawaii, which primarily target swordfish. However, coverage of deep-set fishing trips that target bigeye tuna, or ahi, declined about 5% to 15.2% compared with previous years.

NOAA also temporarily stopped sending observers to American Samoa due to COVID-19 restrictions but said it was using other measures to try to make up for the loss of visibility.

“PIRO has not been able to deploy observers in the American Samoa longline fishery due to the halt of air travel to Pago Pago, American Samoa,” said Hanley. “Until these conditions change, PIRO will continue to monitor fishing effort, catch data and other relevant information using appropriate available methods, such as logbooks.”

Hanley said the Pacific Islands Regional Office weighs the availability of qualified observers, travel restrictions and other COVID-19 requirements as well as the policies of the private companies that provide NOAA with observers in determining deployments.

Last month, NOAA extended the use of the waivers, saying the practice had “resulted in a successful balance between public health and the safety of fishermen, observers and others, while maintaining fishery operations and the monitoring necessary for sustainable management.”

Eric Kingma, executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the disruption of coverage appeared to mostly come down to travel restrictions and the logistics.

“Some observers come back and forth. They’re not all based in Hawaii and so I think there were issues about travel observer availability and being able to place observers,” he said. “It didn’t have anything to do with our fleet and I don’t think it had anything to do with the company providing observers.”

The question of whether to continue the observer missions was controversial when the pandemic began more than a year ago. Some commercial fleets expressed concern that the presence of the observers would be a safety hazard since they could increase the risk of coronavirus exposure, according to a report in Roll Call.

“There are examples of fleets across the nation of much longer disruptions in observer coverage periods,” said Kingma. “Our fleet had a very short period without observer coverage, and to this day, there are much larger fisheries and fleets that have zero.”

The pandemic added new risk to what was already a sometimes challenging job. The ocean can be a dangerous place to work when high winds and unexpected storms go through, and observers share those dangers with fishermen. But the observers and the fishermen they monitor have a sometimes fraught relationship even without the risk of contracting COVID-19.

A 2007 study by the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center of fishermen’s experiences with observers found more than 80% of those interviewed reported having problems either with the overall program or the individual observers assigned to their boat. “I don’t like the concept of the program,” one fisherman told authors of the study. “The observers are out to get the fishermen. They are sneaky, permitting us to do certain things in the fishing grounds and then later imposing a fine.”

Any violations an observer reports to NOAA can result in hefty federal fines for a crew, resulting in smaller profits once their catch finally makes its way to market.

In 2016, the Association for Professional Observers and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility released statistics showing that the number of reported incidents of intimidation, harassment and assault of observers hired by NOAA more than doubled from 35 in 2013 to 84 in 2015.

Kingma said Hawaii’s fishermen have continued to cooperate with fishery observers and noted that other fishing fleets haven’t been subject to the same oversight. For some, monitoring has stopped almost completely as some international fishing companies argued that observers and inspectors risked infecting their crews with COVID-19 and prevented them from boarding their vessels.

The job of fishing observers contracted by international agencies to monitor fishing operations of foreign fishing vessels in the Pacific can be particularly dangerous. At least two American observers have gone missing while assigned to international vessels in the Pacific since 2015, and dozens of others have gone missing or died under mysterious circumstances.

Maintaining an accurate record of what actually happens at sea has always been a challenge for regulatory agencies.

“While the pandemic has caused unprecedented conditions, PIRO and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council have the expertise to provide analysis and advice on whether, or by how much, future management should be modified in response to fishery-dependent data gaps,” said Hanley.

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