National Marine Fisheries Service:

Improved Economic Analysis and Evaluation Strategies Needed for Proposed Changes to Atlantic Large Whale Protection Plan

GAO-07-881: Published: Jul 20, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2007.

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The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) developed the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction (ALWTR) plan to protect endangered large whales from entanglements in commercial fishing gear, which can cause injury or death. Because whales continued to die after the ALWTR plan went into effect, NMFS proposed revisions in 2005. GAO was asked to review these proposed revisions, including (1) their scientific basis and uncertainties regarding their effectiveness, (2) NMFS's plans to address concerns about the feasibility of implementing them, (3) the extent to which NMFS fully assessed the costs to the fishing industry and impacts on fishing communities, and (4) the extent to which NMFS developed strategies for fully evaluating their effectiveness. GAO reviewed the proposed changes to the ALWTR plan and obtained the views of NMFS officials, industry representatives, scientists, and conservationists.

NMFS used scientific data on whale entanglements, scarification, and sightings as support for its proposed changes to the ALWTR plan. These data indicate that right and humpback whales are being injured and killed by entanglements in commercial fishing gear at a rate that limits the species' ability to recover. One of the key proposed changes to the ALWTR plan involves replacing floating groundline, which forms arcs in the water that can entangle whales, with sinking groundline that lies on the ocean bottom. While there is a consensus among whale experts that using sinking groundline will reduce risks to whales, uncertainties remain regarding how many fewer serious injuries and mortalities will occur as a result of this requirement. NMFS has not yet resolved implementation issues associated with using sinking groundline in rocky bottom areas, particularly off the coast of Maine. While NMFS believes that it is operationally feasible to use sinking groundline in all areas, it recognizes that fishermen may have to modify their fishing practices to use this type of gear effectively. Maine lobster industry representatives told GAO that fishermen who operate in rocky bottom areas will not be able to use sinking groundline because it will wear away and create safety hazards if the line snaps when it is hauled. NMFS's economic assessment of the costs of the proposed gear modifications did not reflect the significant uncertainties associated with the assessment, and the extent to which these costs to the fishing industry could be higher or lower than reported is unclear. Because NMFS lacked verifiable data for some of the key cost variables, it used estimates and assumptions that introduced a significant amount of uncertainty into the cost calculations, which the agency acknowledged. However, instead of presenting a range of costs to account for these uncertainties, NMFS produced a single estimate of compliance costs--about $14 million annually. Moreover, because it lacked key data on fishermen's ability to absorb these costs without going out of business, NMFS could not fully assess the impacts that the cost of gear modifications would have on fishing communities. For example, without knowing which specific fishermen would go out of business, NMFS could not determine the impact lost jobs would have on the communities in which they lived. NMFS has not developed strategies for fully evaluating the effectiveness of the proposed regulatory changes. Specifically, NMFS's gear-marking requirements may not be adequate for effectively assessing future whale entanglements because they do not include comprehensive markings that researchers could use to assess the type of rope involved in entanglements. Additionally, NMFS does not yet have a strategy to monitor the level of industry compliance and therefore lacks a means to determine whether any future entanglements are due to industry noncompliance with the regulatory requirements or the ineffectiveness of the gear modifications.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) clarified some of the variations and uncertainties in its analysis of the costs of complying with potential modifications to the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction plan in a new appendix included in the economic analysis section of its final environmental impact statement. Specifically, the new appendix contains a sensitivity analysis of four potentially important categories of costs, such as the amount of gear loss, that uses alternate cost values above and below the primary cost values for each cost category to produce a range of cost estimates for fishermen to comply with some of the proposed gear modifications. NMFS finalized the environmental impact statement in September 2007, before finalizing its proposed regulations for the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction plan on October 5, 2007.

    Recommendation: Before NMFS finalizes its proposed regulations for the ALWTR plan, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to direct the Assistant Administrator for NMFS to adequately represent the uncertainty in data that the agency used to determine the costs of the proposed fishing gear modifications, by presenting a range of possible costs in the economic analysis section of the final environmental impact statement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) did not include gear-marking requirements on sinking ground line or in exempted areas in its final regulations for the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction plan. Although the agency concurred with GAO that methods are needed for identifying sinking ground line and gear from exempted areas, it stated that such markings were not feasible or practical at the time. Actions the agency has taken since that time related to this recommendation, such as developing a document in 2010 that discusses the pros and cons of the current gear marking scheme and identifies more extensive gear marking schemes for the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Team to consider, have not been responsive to the recommendation.

    Recommendation: Before NMFS finalizes its proposed regulations for the ALWTR plan, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to direct the Assistant Administrator for NMFS to revise the proposed gear-marking requirements to include markings on sinking groundline and gear marking requirements in exempted areas.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2011, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a draft Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan Monitoring Strategy. The draft Monitoring Strategy is divided into two components: (1) evaluating the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan's overall effectiveness and (2) evaluating compliance with the plan's requirements. The draft Monitoring Strategy includes strategies for collecting and reporting data that will assist NMFS to assess industry compliance with the gear modification requirements of the plan. While NMFS was unable to complete the Monitoring Strategy before finalizing its regulations for the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, we believe that this NMFS action adequately implements our recommendation.

    Recommendation: Before NMFS finalizes its proposed regulations for the ALWTR plan, the Secretary of Commerce should direct the Administrator of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to direct the Assistant Administrator for NMFS to develop a strategy for assessing the extent of industry compliance with the gear modification requirements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

 

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