Electronic monitoring has smooth first year; human observer costs rising

After the first year of electronic monitoring on fishing vessels in Alaska, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expanding the pool for boats that want to get in on it.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has been working on implementing an electronic monitoring program for commercial fishing vessels in Alaska for several years. The devices, essentially small cameras and sensors, replace a human observer and take note of the bycatch and total catch on eligible vessels. In 2018, the first year of the program, the council approved 145 vessels to participate.

At its meeting Oct. 4 in Anchorage, council staff member Elizabeth Figus said things went so well on those vessels that not a single one had to be removed from the pool for a violation of the Vessel Monitoring Plan, or VMP.

“That was really good news,” she told the council.

In June, the council approved an expansion of the program to allow up to 165 vessels to participate. The deadline to register through the Observer Declare and Deploy System was Nov. 1.

The small boat fleet in particular pushed for the implementation of electronic monitoring equipment after the council changed the requirements for observing to include small vessels — boats 60 feet or shorter— because it’s harder for them to provide the space and gear for another person besides the crew.

Though the council recommended the pool expand to up to 165 boats, funding is a limitation. In the draft 2019 Annual Deployment Report — which lays out the plan for deploying observers in the partial observer coverage program for the upcoming year — council staff wrote that the EM pool will include 141 boats to start, based on the funding available.

If that funding materializes, vessels will be prioritized based on whether vessels already have equipment, whether they’re fully wired and only lack the specific equipment or if the vessel is between 40 feet and 57.5 feet and doesn’t have enough bunk or life raft space for an observer, according to the ADP.

“If additional funds become available, the number of EM boats could increase to the Council’s recommendation of 165 boats,” the report states. “If funding is not sufficient to accommodate all vessels in any one of these prioritized categories, NMFS will randomly select vessels from that category until funding is exhausted.”

While EM systems have been shown to effectively monitor bycatch, NMFS also uses observers to gather biological data at sea. Human observers are still deployed across the fishing fleet, with varying coverage based on gear type and vessel size.

For 2019, NMFS is recommending a 15 percent observer deployment allocation strategy plus optimization and consideration of catch limits of specific prohibited species including king salmon, crab and halibut.

The ADP only governs the partial observer coverage fisheries — which is only about 8.8 percent of observer days, or about 3,606 days — and is designed to reduce gaps in coverage in partial-coverage fisheries and to shoot for at least a 50 percent chance that at least three trips are observed in each hook-and-line and trawl fishery, though the report states that the likelihood of that level of coverage isn’t as high in the other gear strata.

Funding is an issue across the observer program. NMFS estimated in the ADP that the program would cost about $4.45 million, or about 3,110 observer days, though that may change after the EM application pool closes.

The Fisheries Monitoring Advisory Committee, a stakeholder group advising the council on observer program issues, made note of a its concern about the increasing cost of observer days from $1,100 to more than $1,400 per day. The committee noted that the increase in cost for the days was multifaceted and wanted to know more about why the cost is increasing, Figus told the council.

The reason for the increase isn’t clear, either. In a written comment to the council, North Pacific Fishermen’s Association President Malcolm Milne echoed the concern, saying the increase was about 35 percent more per day than in 2017.

“In 2017, planned coverage rates were 11 percent for hook and line, 4 percent for pot fisheries, and 18 percent for trawl and 14 percent for tendered trawl trips and the cost was nearly a third lower — $935 per day,” he wrote. “In 2018 NMFS’ sampling design established a 15 percent base coverage rate in order to meet NMFS priority of filling gaps in remote fisheries in areas with low effort.

“Does an equal coverage sampling design add to the increased cost? NPFA requests that the Council inquire into the causes of the increased cost and seek ways to reduce costs through the ADP process where feasible.”

Based on that cost, the committee voted against supporting an ADP that included the crab Prohibited Species Catch limit into its metrics for coverage, which would increase coverage for pot fisheries and possibly reduce it for hook-and-line fisheries, where the members felt more management was likely necessary.

The committee also “supports sticking with only halibut and chinook because of the real-world effect they have in closing down fisheries,” according to the minutes from the committee’s Sept. 13-14 meeting in Seattle.

The council passed a motion in response to a Fisheries Monitoring Advisory Committee’s recommendation to write a letter to NMFS requesting additional federal funding to support the partial observer coverage program.

The committee also requested an explanation of how fees for the EM program and the observer program will be split, which council staff is working on, Figus said at the meeting.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
10/31/2018 - 10:09am

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