Federal fishing monitoring program needs overhaul, GAO says

By Daniel Cusick | 07/10/2024 04:31 PM EDT

The NOAA Fisheries program — the subject of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning the Chevron doctrine — places observers on commercial fishing boats.

A molting black-footed Albatross reaches for bait during fishing operations.

A black-footed albatross reaching for fishing bait. NOAA Fisheries

Only days after the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the federal government’s program placing human observers on commercial fishing boats, a federal watchdog said NOAA Fisheries should do a better job monitoring the industry.

A report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office said NOAA Fisheries — also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service — has failed to execute its program as Congress intended under law.

NOAA has long relied on independent observers to ensure compliance with regulations and collect data to guide fisheries management decisions. In recent years, as critical fish stocks have declined due to overfishing and climate change, regulators have placed greater emphasis in particular on reducing the accidental taking of unwanted species, which is called bycatch.


Such species — including marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and juvenile fish — are usually unnetted and released, but they can suffer injuries that lead to death.

GAO found that not all fisheries have sufficient observers and that NOAA Fisheries hasn’t gathered the information on what resources are needed for the programs or told Congress what is needed. In the Gulf of Mexico, only two percent of shrimp trawl fishing trips included an observer.

“NMFS’ efforts to track its performance in reducing and monitoring bycatch do not align with key elements of evidence-based policymaking related to performance management,” GAO said in the report, which was requested by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Specifically, the agency’s bycatch reduction implementation plan lacks measurable performance goals,” the report noted. “Having an updated plan with measurable goals and a tracking process could help inform agency decision-making.”

And while NOAA “has enhanced its database to compile bycatch estimates,” it “does not have a comprehensive written plan for how it will report the estimates.”

The report comes on the heels of June 28’s landmark Supreme Court decision stemming from two 2020 lawsuits involving the monitoring program. Those cases, Loper Bright v. Raimondo and Relentless v. Commerce, were brought by a group of New Jersey herring fishermen and a Rhode Island commercial fishing company over a NOAA regulatory provision requiring boat owners to pay roughly $710 per fishing day to cover the cost of on-board bycatch observers.

NOAA eventually delayed the rule’s implementation, citing funding shortfalls, but plaintiffs argued in both district and appellate courts that the observer rule was an overreach of federal authority and would place undue economic burdens on fishermen and local fishing economies.

The Supreme Court did not rule on those issues but instead took up a broader question around what’s called the “Chevron doctrine,” which holds that federal agencies should receive deference when disputes arise over interpretation of regulations.

Lower courts cited the longstanding deference principle in rulings in favor of NOAA, leading to the Supreme Court hearing the case and overturning the Chevron doctrine. It remains unclear how the high court ruling will be applied as the Loper Bright and Relentless cases are remanded to lower courts for decisions, but environmentalists and other experts have said they are worried NOAA’s fisheries regulations could be sharply curtailed.

In a formal response from the Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, officials told GAO that they agreed with the report’s findings and would take efforts to improve its observer program, including efforts to accurately calculate bycatch on fishing boats and better explain its methodology for how bycatch affects different fisheries.

“Bycatch monitoring is among the most expensive endeavors the agency undertakes, and this report highlights how the limited funding for bycatch reduction and monitoring impacts NMFS’ ability to collect and analyze bycatch data, and how these funding constraints ultimately affect [the agency’s] ability to more accurately estimate and report on bycatch impacts in federal fisheries,” the agency said.

In 2019, NOAA said it employed roughly 750 on-board observers to monitor 54 species, but the program has struggled to retain employees, and in 2020 NOAA reported an 11 percent net decline in observers. At the same time, the $80 million annual program has faced increasing budget constraints, logistical challenges and strained relationships with boat owners.

A NOAA spokesperson did not reply to a request for further comment.

Gib Brogan, fisheries campaign director at Oceana, said in an statement that while some U.S. fisheries have significantly reduced bycatch, it remains a significant problem along America’s coastlines.

“More must be done to clean up America’s fisheries to avoid, limit, and manage bycatch. Congress and NOAA need to work together to build and fund the infrastructure to make bycatch management and reduction a reality in all U.S. fisheries,” he said.