Every year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spends about $40 million to put independent observers on fishing vessels, where they collect data on what's caught in U.S. waters. The information is crucial for evaluating how well fishery management plans are working. Now NOAA wants to limit public access to these data in order to protect confidential business information. While the fishing industry welcomes the proposal, scientists and environmental groups are anxious. "Our worry is that this will limit third-party involvement in fisheries management," says Lee Crockett of the Pew Environment Group in Washington, D.C. Public comments are due by 21 October.
NOAA says it is proposing the changes in order to better comply with two fisheries laws. Although the agency previously made sure that fisheries data did not identify a person or business, under the draft rule it would also not release "operational information." This includes where and when a vessel caught fish, which kinds or how many, and what kind of gear was used. The public would have to request this information directly from the holders of the fishing permit, who can keep mum. NOAA believes that it can still give out "detailed and useful information" by aggregating fisheries data so that it is anonymous, but it doesn't says how it would do that. "It's such a central question to this confidentiality rule, it should be part of the discussion," Crockett says.
Marine ecologist Larry Crowder of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says that fisheries data are far less useful when aggregated, especially when trying to devise new approaches to management. "We can only advance that if we can access high-resolution data." Having to ask the fishing community for specifics would lead to an incomplete picture, he adds. "In most cases, our only reliable peek at what's going on in fisheries is the observer data."
Other researchers emphasize that it is already difficult to get detailed observer data from NOAA. "I would love to get my hands on it for some fisheries I work on, but most jurisdictions prohibit releasing information on fishing vessels unless it is aggregated into more than three vessels," says Ray Hilborn of the University of Washington, Seattle. "So I doubt the proposed changes would make any difference, it is already like that—at least in my experience."
In a comment to NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Rebecca Lewison of San Diego State University in California noted that "NMFS' mandate is to protect resources held in trust for the public. Public access to fisheries data allows for independent assessments that fisheries management decisions are consistent with this mandate. Preventing non-government scientists access to observer data or only providing grossly aggregated data will undermine public trust in NMFS. It will also limit the application of best-available science to US fisheries management."
NMFS Director Samuel Rauch declined an interview request through a spokesperson.