Chair Huffman Seeks Answers on NOAA’s Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

July 16, 2020

San Rafael, CA – Today, Representative Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife, sent a letter to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) requesting further information on NOAA’s plans to address COVID-19 impacts on fisheries management, NOAA staff, the fishing industry, and members of the public. The letter was addressed to Dr. Neil Jacobs, the Acting Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere. 

“These unprecedented conditions will persist into next year and possibly later, and it is your responsibility to respond and react to the ongoing challenges appropriately,” Rep. Huffman states in the letter. “Now, more than ever, it is critical that our federal agencies are adaptive, transparent, and focused on keeping their workforce safe and addressing the real needs of the public that they serve.”

The letter outlines requests for further information on four specific items, including:

  1. Communications and Guidance: the agency has developed guidance to avoid using words related to the pandemic, such as COVID.
    • Who developed the internal guidance and what was the basis of these options, particularly the ‘preferred approach’? Was there input from public health experts and career staff?
    • Even if, as claimed, NOAA developed this guidance to ensure consistency in communications, what is the purpose of limiting references to the ongoing pandemic?
    • Does the agency plan to continue using this internal guidance document?
  2. Fisheries Surveys: due to health risks, several surveys have been cancelled this summer.
    • What was the decision-making process used to cancel these surveys? What public health information is the agency using to evaluate risks to NOAA employees?
    • What additional technologies, staffing models, or new cooperative research could be used to fill this gap in the near term, and if necessary, in future years? What tools does NOAA have at its disposal now, and what would require outyear planning?
    • Is there a way to involve fishermen to collect part of this missing survey data?
    • How will these cancelled surveys impact fisheries management?
  3. Waivers for Observer Requirements: waivers have been granted to regions on a case by case basis, which has required some to accept more health risks than others.
    • What is the justification for extending observer waivers in some regions but not others? Do waivers consider the recent significant increase in cases throughout the country?
    • Does the agency plan to continue using its current guidelines for observer waivers? If the guidelines are updated, will there be opportunities for stakeholder input?
    • Given that regions like the Pacific have a strong pattern of compliance and currently have an experimental electronic monitoring (EM) program, has the agency considered the use of EM when evaluating observer waivers?
    • How does the agency plan to advance the use of EM, which would be especially valuable in these types of circumstances, when human observers pose health risks and are putting themselves at risk due to the limited space onboard fishing vessels?
  4. Status of CARES Act Fisheries Relief Funding: the $300 million appropriated by Congress has yet to reach anyone who has been impacted.
    • What is the status of the relief funding?
    • How long does NOAA expect to take to review and approve state spend plans? How long does NOAA expect to take to distribute funds once plans are approved?

A copy of the full letter can be found here.