Public Access to Observer Data: Archived Project Updates

Public Trust and Data Transparency

Elizabeth Mitchell, North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (NPGOP) USA, Fisheries Observer


The Magnusun-Stevens Reauthorization Act of 2006 has strengthened the privatization of public fisheries resources while simultaneously restricting public access to observer monitoring data from those vessels. This inhibits independent scientific review of fishing impacts on marine ecosystems. Fisheries are often located on unique seamount and canyon ecosystems that may also be important for other fisheries. 

In 1994, NMFS created an Administrative Order (NOAA AO 216-100) that protected "data that are identifiable with any person". NMFS developed their own guideline, commonly known as the "3-Boat Rule" to protect the privacy of individual vessels. This allowed public access to observer data unless three or fewer vessels were fishing within a 10 square nm area. Now, NMFS is in the process of updating these guidelines to reflect the increase in privatization of public resources into the hands of fewer and fewer "entities" (which include corporations, coops, sectors, etc.). 

The new rules would protect the identity of corporations, which have the potential to own entire quotas for a fishery and may have several vessels fishing that quota. Also being considered by NMFS is an increase in the number of these protected "entities" to more than three and to increase the square mileage. Through the privatization of Alaska groundfish fisheries, single companies can fish an entire ecosystem and an entire available quota. These new guidelines will potentially create large data sets that will completely escape public scrutiny. 

This will surely hinder independent review of observer data to evaluate harmful fishing practices. Therefore we will be forced to depend entirely upon the decisions made within NOAA. If these changes come to pass, public trust in fisheries observer bycatch data would be vastly diminished. While individual fishing quotas have their place in sustainable fishery management solutions, it should have never gone to this level, where corporations not only dictate what, how, and where observers monitor their fisheries, but also how the data is distributed. 

It is only through transparency that the public develops trust in NOAA decisions to end overfishing and marine ecosystem destruction. Both of these are mandates under the Magnusun-Stevens Act. Unfortunately, while the Act mandates sustainable fisheries management, it simultaneously destroys public trust by preventing independent assessment and evaluation of our progress. 

Contact Author: 
Elizabeth Mitchell, P.O. Box 933, Eugene, Oregon 97440, United States 541-344-5503 (phone), (e-mail) 

To check out Alicia Billings' abstract for the 6th IFMOC, click here.


Our goal is to provide a comprehensive source of information for observers, and the public, on issues related to fishery observer programs.

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