April 24, 2008

Scallop boats are shelling out a lot of money for observers


Scallop boat captains and crews are finding that the cost of paying for observer coverage on fishing trips is taking a big bite out of their pay-shares.

Sea scallop boats typically pay $775 per day for an observer who collects data and monitors fishing activity.  Observers record catch and bycatch and gear and economic information that is used in management decisions.

“Trips can run anywhere from 10 to 14 days.  So, the cost runs $10,850 for a 14-day trip,” said Betsy Crockett, administrative assistant at Wanchese Fish Company.

Crockett said the expense is deducted from the gross income before shares are paid to the company, captains, and crews.

Most U. S. fisheries observer programs are set up so that National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) contracts with private companies for observer services that are paid for with federal funds.

In a few West Coast and Alaska fisheries, the fishing industry pays observer companies directly.

The Atlantic sea scallop fishery has fallen under both federally-funded and industry-funded observer coverage in the past.  

NMFS restructured the scallop observer program in 2006, setting up a system where the federal agency contracts service providers but the funds come from the fishing industry.  NMFS allows the boats to harvest 400 pounds per day over the catch limit to help offset the cost.

But Crockett said boats fishing in some areas often do not catch the limit, let alone the extra 400 pounds to help compensate for the expense.

U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-NC, would like to see NMFS look at alternative methods to mitigate the cost to the boats.

However, NMFS appears reluctant to consider alternatives.  James Balsiger, NMFS director, recommended that boats cut short their fishing time in order to reduce costs.

Jones has also raised questions over the $775 daily fee paid by the scallop boats when observers typically receive around $200 per day.

“This calls into question whether these companies are overcharging fishermen and taking excessive profits,” Jones wrote NMFS in March.

Balsiger said that competition between the service providers keeps the fees competitive.

But Crockett and others in the scallop industry say there’s not much competitive pricing when just two companies are approved by NMFS to provide observer service.


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