NOAA Fisheries Observer Reforms Only Half-Baked
Weak Contract Administration Encourages Fleet Violations and Abuses
Washington, DC — New reforms to protect independent monitors of U.S. commercial fishing fleets are weak and will not solve systemic management problems in observer programs, according to the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), whose complaint spurred these reforms. Under a system set up by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the fishing fleets can compromise verification of catch-limits, by-catch of protected species and violations such as shark-finning and marine pollution.
Fisheries Observers accompany commercial fleets working 47 different fisheries in U.S. and international waters. They are not federal employees but work for companies under contract to NOAA which do not provide guaranteed on-the-job protections. In a complaint filed jointly in late 2011 by APO and PEER, Fisheries Observers from the Southeast U.S. related that they are discouraged from reporting violations, subjected to unsafe conditions, pressured about the integrity of data they collect and vulnerable to reprisal through blackballing or being assigned to arduous “punishment trips.”
In response to that complaint, NOAA undertook a formal investigation, surveyed observers and in an early 2013 report pledged to adopt nine reforms, including a “uniform, transparent and consistent procedure for collecting and reporting all potential marine resource violations” to law enforcement, stronger safety procedures, and a process for observers to file complaints. These reforms are supposed to apply across the board to all seven major U.S. observer programs. Although promised to be completed last fall, the final version contained in a “National Review of Observer Program and Procedures” was only released last week. While the steps announced represent some progress, they fall short in that they –
- Provide little uniformity, letting each program operate autonomously without firm timelines. For example, each of the seven major observer programs is directed to establish its own process for reporting potential violations to law enforcement. To aggravate matters, the Review endorses “prioritization” of violations in each program rationalizing that it is “not the same as ignoring potential violations” though that distinction is often lost in practice;
- Continue to allow fleets to make observer accommodations so intolerable or unsafe that they can avoid observer coverage altogether. The Review concedes “Unfortunately, carrying an observer is an unpopular part of business for many vessel operators [who] have manipulated their space onboard or carried extra crew members in an attempt to avoid observer coverage through observer refusal”; and
- Fail to produce a clear list of responsibilities or duties for NOAA staff and contract managers.
“This report is little consolation for observers who live in fear of losing their jobs,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers. “Without enforceable national standards, contractors and NOAA staff can still point the finger at each other with no accountability for observer welfare, professional standards and integrity of the data.”
As contract employees, Fisheries Observers have few formal rights or defenses against blackballing or other retaliation from their employing corporations. A recent federal whistleblower law for the first time gives them legal remedies but that law has yet to be tested. In addition, these protections are supposed to be incorporated into the observer contracts with NOAA but the agency has yet to do so.
“While we are relieved that NOAA is finally admitting problems, we wish it was better at solutions,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that PEER recently had to sue NOAA to force the agency to release copies of their contracts with observer companies. “NOAA contracts for observer services contain no standards, no guidelines and no protocols – they are merely open-ended money transfers. This results in arms-length administration of a critical resource protection program already suffering from malign neglect.”