One of the most pressing challenges for New England’s groundfish fleet is the issue of at-sea monitoring. Federal regulations require onboard human observers to verify each vessel’s fishing activity. This approach is not only costly (NOAA estimates $710 per observed day at sea), but also dangerous. Monitors frequently have little experience on fishing vessels — which poses what many captains feel is an unnecessary safety risk on already-crowded and chaotic decks.
Over the past three years, GMRI has tested new technology designed to help fishermen comply with fisheries monitoring requirements in a safe, cost-effective manner.
Together with The Nature Conservancy, Ecotrust Canada, and Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, we are exploring how a system of cameras and computers might replace human observers on-board groundfishing vessels. In 2015, Maine fishermen began the third year of a project designed to implement this suite of technology.
Electronic video monitoring systems use a network of three or four cameras to capture all fish handling activity on-deck. Cameras focus on dedicated discard points, where fish are identified and measured before they are thrown overboard. Upon completion of the trip, fishermen send hard drives containing the video recordings to third-party reviewers, who watch the footage and quantify the amount of discarded fish. Regulators then use the information to account for the catch of each vessel.
“Electronic monitoring can improve fisheries data collection the same way electronic tolls have improved highway traffic,” explains Mark Hager, Technical Programs Manager at GMRI. “This technology provides an accurate alternative to human monitors that is both safe and affordable.”
In 2016, up to 20 participating New England fishermen will use these cameras, rather than human monitors, to document discards of groundfish such as cod, haddock, and flounder. This marks the first time fishermen and managers will use this technology as a substitute for human monitors for this fishery.
“Using the electronic monitoring system really doesn’t add too much extra work to our fishing day. I think it is something that fishermen will get behind if it can give us a safer alternative to taking human monitors on our boats,” said Troy Bichrest, a fisherman in Cundy’s Harbor, Maine.
With quotas for some groundfish species, particularly cod, at historic lows, the importance of accurate fishing information has never been greater, and the profit margin for fishermen has never been smaller.
This program is launching at an important time. Information gaps and rising costs are at the forefront of the current fisheries monitoring dialogue. With the costs of at-sea monitoring now in the process of transitioning from the government to New England groundfish fleet, fishermen are looking for more affordable ways to meet federal monitoring requirements. GMRI continues to support fishermen and managers in the pursuit of these solutions, for the benefit of our oceans and the people who depend upon them.
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