Electronic monitoring rolling out in 2018 after years of work
Alaska fishermen will see changes to the mandatory observer program next year.
After years of requests, testing and prepping, the National Marine Fisheries Service is rolling out a more-complete electronic monitoring program for small boat fishermen who are directed to have partial observer coverage as part of the 2018 observer program.
Electronic Monitoring uses cameras and sensors to record and monitor fishing activities, and help ensure the accuracy of catch records. Normally, that work is done by human observers who are placed on fishing vessels.
But when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council moved to put observers on smaller fishing vessels (those 60 feet or shorter) several years ago, to get a better sense of what was happening on those boats, captains said it could be problematic to take an extra person on their boats.
It was difficult to find them space to sleep, keep them safe and out of the way while actually catching fish and bringing them onboard, and hard (or burdensomely expensive) to ensure that there was enough life raft capacity and safety gear for an extra person. Instead, they asked for a camera system.
Developing such a system has taken several years, from the 2013 decision to restructure the observer program to see what was happening on smaller boats, to 2016, when 51 vessels participated in a pre-implementation program.
The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, or ALFA, has been on the forefront of the push for electronic monitoring throughout that time. They’ve worked on testing and groundtruthing various iterations of EM, with help from grants and other organizations, and now the technology is ready for use at sea.
ALFA’s Dan Falvey said he’s looking forward to seeing the program launch, but also hopes that more refinement occurs in the future.
“There’s more work to be done to fully optimize the EM option that we have now,” Falvey said.
The EM program is open for longliners and pot fishermen to opt-in through Nov. 1. So far, Falvey said close to 100 boats have signed up, out of a fleet of about 630 including both the small fixed gear and pot vessels.
The program agreed to by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council would allow up to 165 boats to take on an approved EM system: 120 longliners and 45 pot boats. So far, the boats signed on come from across the Gulf of Alaska, including Homer, Kodiak, Southeast ports, and even Dutch Harbor and Sand Point.
In mid-October, there was funding available for about 110 boats total, and Falvey said ALFA and others are working to find funding to pay for the systems on all 165 boats.
Falvey said that optimum number is one thing he would like to see more work on in the future.
The EM program relies on cameras, instead of human observers, which means that no biological data is collected. As a result, the program is limited in number, because the National Marine Fisheries Service wants some biological data collected. Falvey said he’s interested in seeing more work done to balance the need for that biological data, and the need for the electronic option.
ALFA, which is based in Sitka, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association, based in Homer, were both involved in testing EM systems. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission led much of that work, and companies that provide human observers were also involved.
Throughout the process, cost was a major challenge. So was finding a way to make sure the camera accurately identified what was coming onboard. Previous iterations of EM required a human to go through all the tape, something that turned out to be too time-consuming to be practical.
Now, all approved EM systems (captains have a choice of what to install on their boat, as long as it meets the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regulations) hit a certain standard for what can be ID’d by the cameras, Falvey explained.
“Everybody’s pretty satisfied with the data quality,” he said. “…There is a vetting process that all the systems have to go through before deployment.”
Alaska’s transition to EM comes as part of a nationwide push. While the Alaska fleet has been requesting it for years, the agency has also been working to implement it elsewhere. In 2016, then-NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Eileen Sobeck told fishermen that the agency had funded about 30 test programs in the past decade, and had successfully implemented some regional EM plans throughout the nation.
When the North Pacific council approved the EM option for Alaska’s small-boat fishermen, the agency also set forth a plan for future work. An EM workgroup is expected to track the project through implementation, look at future cost efficiencies, review future research plans, and otherwise stay engaged in the growth and development of future EM options.
The program is open to specific boats that are in the partial coverage category, and once they are in the pool of EM vessels, they will be randomly selected to have EM coverage on a particular fishing trip. Those trips will end with a tender delivery, unlike for those with human observers, who do not end their trips until they reach a port.
The 2018 observer program also comes with some other changes. NMFS is expecting to have about 30 percent of the fleet that is in the partial coverage category observed next year, which is more than in the past.