Fishing captains turn to digital tools to meet monitoring mandate

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BOSTON – New England fishermen are starting to use digital cameras to document groundfish discards and prove they are fishing within established quotas, turning to technology for a method that may prove more cost effective than hiring human monitors.

With support from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, The Nature Conservancy is overseeing a new project, which launches on Wednesday, June 1 and is being hailed as a “new era in fisheries monitoring.”

Up to 20 groundfishermen from the Maine Coast Community Sector and Cape Cod’s Fixed Gear Sector will use three to four cameras to capture fish handling activity on the decks of their vessels. After completing their trips, crews will send hard drives to third party reviewers who watch the footage and quantify the amount of discarded fish.

“Electronic monitoring is the only realistic solution for the small-boat fishery,” Eric Hesse, captain of the Tenacious II, of West Barnstable, said in a statement. “Even if some fishermen have managed to scrape together enough daily revenue to cover the cost of human observers, it won’t take much to undo that balance.”

In December 2015, the non-profit Cause of Action announced a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of the federal mandate requiring them to carry at-sea monitors on their vessels during fishing trips and to soon begin paying the cost of hosting the federal enforcement contractors. The suit was filed by Northeast Fishery Sector 13, which represents fishermen from Massachusetts to North Carolina. Cause of Action estimates the cost of human monitors at $710 per day.

Christopher McGuire, marine program director at The Nature Conservancy, told the News Service his group has begun working with National Marine Fisheries Service staff “to design our electronic monitoring program in such a way that it could be approved” as an acceptable method of monitoring fishing activity.

The project is being operated under an “exempted fishing permit,” which McGuire said is a “commonly used way to try something out for a limited time and a limited number of vessels.”

The goal is to determine if electronic monitoring can deliver verifiable data at an affordable cost. “If yes, then we expect it to be approved by regulation in the next year or two as an alternative monitoring program,” McGuire said.

Participants in this year’s program believe electronic monitoring could be the best long-term monitoring solution for them “and are therefore motivated to make it work,” he said.

Asked about the potential for fishermen to tamper with video monitoring systems, McGuire emphasized that fishermen are motivated to make the system work and said the systems log activity and have an onboard back-up battery “so any tampering or deliberate disabling actions will be apparent to the video reviewer. Bad actors will be penalized and may be expelled from the program.”

In a statement, Mike Russo, captain of the Gulf Venture out of Provincetown, said, “Cameras on boats will make a big difference for two reasons. One, you won’t have an inexperienced person onboard, which is a liability and a safety risk, and two, pictures don’t lie: Video footage will validate fishermen’s observations, which up until now have been categorized as anecdotal. Now, the proof will be there.”

In an August 2014 report prepared by Archipelago Marine Research Ltd. for the US Commerce Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service, researchers concluded two approaches to electronic monitoring that were examined “will require significant additional design work to fully conform to the existing monitoring and regulatory environment and the operational features of the NE ground fish fishery.”

But the report also said the research demonstrated “that both approaches have the potential to provide a useful and cost-effective solution to help in meeting the information needs of the NE ground fish fishery.”

The Environmental Defense Fund has been calling for electronic monitoring of all groundfish boats for the last two years, saying it would save fishermen the cost of at-sea monitors while providing scientists and regulators with real-time information on what is happening at sea.

Written by Michael P. Norton