North East For-Hire Sector Surprised by Mandatory Electronic Reporting

Back in September; the Greater Atlantic Regional Office of NOAA Fisheries (GARFO) announced  mandatory electronic reporting requirements effecting ANY FOR HIRE VESSEL that fishes under a federal permit and is endorsed to catch certain Mid Atlantic Council managed species. Many New England based charter boats, some who don’t even realize they are supposed to have a federal permit; are affected by this regulation.

This management action is controversial because very few New England charter boat operators pay regular attention to Mid Atlantic Council management meetings. Even New England state marine fisheries agencies were caught by surprise because ME, NH, MA, RI & CT do not hold seats on the MAFMC. To make matters worse; GARFO, MAFMC and NEFMC generally do a poor job communicating with the recreational fishing community. There is no denying the fact that this major action was considered and implemented with very little input from the New England for-hire community.

During research staff conducted regarding this subject, it has become clear that many for hire operators across New England are not aware they are required to hold a federal permit that requires submission of paper Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs). For these operators, this new regulation seems overwhelming. For operators that have been in compliance filing paper reports; the regulation is a no-brainer and good move.

Development of this regulation by the MAFMC was honestly focused on the Mid-Atlantic region; however it actually effects operators from Maine to North Carolina. Major changes are coming to the entire East Coast for-hire fleet and therefore is publishing this article.

This new regulation effects ALL FOR HIRE VESSELS that 1) have a federal for hire permit and 2) have an endorsement to catch any of the included species. All for hire operators from Maine to North Carolina need to make sure they are properly permitted as most are likely effected by this new regulation.

The following are the MAFMC managed species which trigger mandatory reporting of not just these species, but for ALL fish caught during all trips: summer flounder (fluke), scup (porgy), black sea bass, Atlantic mackerel (even if caught only for bait), longfin or illex squid, Atlantic butterfish, bluefish and tilefish.

The following is taken directly from the press release:

“Once you have one or more of these permits, it doesn’t matter where you fish or what you’re fishing for – you must submit Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs) for ALL fishing-related trips on that vessel, including reporting ALL fish kept or discarded (not just fish you have permits for). VTRs can currently be submitted either with paper forms or by electronic VTR applications/software. However, beginning March 12, 2018, all for-hire VTRs (not commercial) for permits associated with the Mid-Atlantic Council will need to be submitted electronically within 48 hours of ending each trip (reporting all trips and all fish). For more information about VTR reporting call NMFS at 978-281-9246 or visit this page on the GARFO website.”

Examples of New England based for hire operators who are likely effected:

A Cape Cod based for-hire operation that catches black sea bass or summer flounder outside of three miles in the middle of Vineyard or Nantucket Sound is affected.

Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard based for-hire operators who catch summer flounder outside of three miles are effected.

Even a Boston based charter operation with a federal permit because they catch haddock and pollock but also catch Atlantic mackerel to use in state waters as striped bass bait are also effected.

For operations that are properly permitted; beginning on March 12, 2018, VTR’s must be submitted electronically within 48 hours.  

The requirement to hold a federal permit for these species is not new and has already been in place. More info on federal permits can be found here.

To be clear, federally permitted for hire operators have always been required to submit Vessel Trip Reports (VTRs) for all trips, even trips conducted in state waters and catching only striped bass. VTR’s must include all species caught. This regulation simply mandates that the VTR is filed via electronic reporting and within 48 hours

More info on Vessel Trip Reports (VTR) can be found here.

We want to clarify the point of this article. Mandatory electronic reporting of  VTR’s for charter boats is a good thing and in due time will benefit the fleet. More accurate data is how stock assessments are improved and accountability for all operators results in a level playing field for all charter operators. The value or debate regarding this regulation is not why we wanted to write this article.

The complete lack of interaction between the charter fleet and management agencies should be a major red flag to all involved.

The process that created this regulation is called a “Framework Adjustment” and was done during normal operation of the Mid Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC). Framework actions take two meetings. The first of these meetings was held in June 2016 in Newark Delaware and the second meeting was held in August of 2016 in Virginia Beach, VA. can find no record of any public hearings related to this Framework because Framework management actions do not require public hearings.

We did find a record on the MAFMC web site that shows on July 18, 2016, the MAFMC For Hire Advisory Panel (AP) met via webinar and reviewed the Framework. researched the makeup of this AP however on October 5, 2017, the MAFMC web site lists no “For Hire Advisory Panel.” Meeting archives reveal no written summary of this meeting but did discover a link to a recording of the webinar. Of course, the file is so massive we could not get the recording to play. We do know that a result of this meeting was to change from 24 to 48 hours the requirement to submit VTRs from 24 to 48 hours.

To their credit, the MAFMC is conducting a series of outreach meetings aimed at educating the for-hire fleet on the new regulation. At this point we are not aware of any meetings to be held in New England.

Considering the wide range of vessels effected and the significant effect on the East Coast for-hire fleet; it would be easy to argue that a regulation of this type should have been created under the Amendment process which takes more time, requires much more analysis and includes mandatory public hearings. Unfortunately; the only way force a reconsideration is via the courts and most for-hire organizations don’t have the vast resources required to do so.

Once the MAFMC made their decision, the proposed regulation went through a NOAA Fisheries review. That review included a draft regulation published in the Federal Register followed by a comment period during which public records indicate only 4 (FOUR) comment letters were submitted. Finally, in September the Final Rule was issued.

Further investigation revealed that in Massachusetts, there is an ongoing study of for hire electronic reporting. That study is toward the end of its first year. Since the study is ongoing, results are not yet available.

There has also been a similar but more intense study done with RI based for hire operators. The results of that study were part of the discussion at the MAFMC during development of this regulation. Simply put, once they learned how to use the program, most of the RI Captains stopped doing paper VTRs. A bonus for them was not just eliminating the actual paper reports but also having the VTRs stored on an electronic device met the requirement to hold copies of VTRs on the vessel. Check out this video of Captains raving about the eTrips program.

The purpose of this article is simply to spread the word about this new regulation and to urge each and every for-hire operator who catches any of the species in question to make sure they are properly permitted and are prepared to meet the required mandatory electronic reporting.

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