Electronic monitoring for fishing vessels back for review


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The restructured observer program, and plans for 2014, will be up for discussion at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in October, including the electronic monitoring component of the program.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, has been working on a pilot project to see how electronic monitoring, or EM, could be used as part of the observer program.

That’s something many in the industry hoped would be part of the program all along.

Jeff Stephan, director of the United Fishermen’s Marketing Association, wrote in an email that his organization “strongly supported the concept of NMFS expeditiously moving forward on all EM fronts.”

The group had hoped NMFS would test and implement the technology widely and productively, across a range of fishing fleets, Stephan wrote.

This year the agency had difficulty getting vessels to participate in the pilot project.

In June, the council agreed to send a letter asking vessel owners to participate after the agency said that it was having trouble getting the cameras on boats.

Now NMFS is asking the council to discuss ways to incentivize participation. NMFS sent the council a letter Sept. 13 asking it to consider placing pilot program participants in the “no coverage” category so they wouldn’t have to take a human observer.

That’s something members of the industry said would help encourage participation at the June meeting. Arranging to take a camera can add time in port for a fishing vessel, and make getting out on the water a little more difficult, fishermen said. The waiver from human coverage could make it easier.

NMFS is not the only entity trying to develop the technology and test the waters of electronic monitoring.

Industry groups, including the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, or ALFA, and the North Pacific Fisheries Association, or NPFA, have taken on EM projects to see how cameras work on various vessels.

In the ALFA project, technicians could identify about 94 percent of the fish caught on camera.

The Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association is getting ready to start its second EM project this January with a $127,400 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fisheries Innovation Fund.

That money, along with $120,000 from the National Marine Fisheries Service, will be used to study the use of cameras on small cod boats.

NPFA President Buck Laukitis said that pot cod fishing is a good candidate for EM because it has low bycatch and the fish come onboard via just one route and go immediately to a sorting table, so a single camera can capture everything coming on board.

By deploying the cameras, the organization hopes to find out how well they can be used to identify species and gauge the bycatch, Laukitis said.

Stephan’s group supports the effort to test EM on pot vessels, he said.

“Moreover, proving the efficiency of meeting general observer program data needs, and other assessment, management and enforcement needs, through the placement of EM on the (Gulf of Alaska pot) cod pot fleet would save precious financial resources (of NMFS and small business entities), provide information on the efficiency and scale of EM technology, save a large number of small business entities from incurring significant financial costs, liability and operational disruption, etc.”

Previously, NPFA looked at the use of cameras on longline boats, working with Saltwater Inc., an observer provider.

NPFA Board Member Malcolm Milne, who put cameras on his boat, said it was a challenging project, but full of important lessons.

Eventually, NPFA and Saltwater found a camera that could withstand the conditions on deck and provide good images of the catch.

“We can definitely see the value,” Milne said.

Laukitis said that Saltwater has applied what it learned its work with NMFS to develop the agency’s pilot program.

Laukitis said small boat fishermen are footing much of the increased cost of the observer program, as much as 80 percent because of valuable halibut and sablefish catches compared to the low value of trawl-caught groundfish, so they have a vested interested in finding a cost-effective way to get data.

“It really is up to us to show that there can be a more efficient use of our resources here, a more cost effective way to do it,” Laukitis said.

Beyond the NPFA projects, more work is needed to get EM up and running, Laukitis said. As technology is refined, fishery-specific goals need to be developed. Cameras and human observers have different advantages and disadvantages, he said. While a camera can’t do everything a person can do, it is cheaper, takes up less space, and has other benefits — like it doesn’t need to sleep.

“There needs to be some sort of performance standard to measure what cameras versus humans can do,” he said.

The end-game is to determine if cameras can help managers the same way observers can.

“We want better data for fisheries management,” Milne said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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