Eric Hesse, captured on electronic monitoring, note the computer screen. Staff photo by Doreen Leggett
Dy Doreen Leggett
Captain Eric Hesse had left his home port of Chatham and was fishing out of Gloucester because it was closer to where the haddock were biting, and also closer to his buyer.
After driving two and a half hours in his pick-up truck, he was carrying gear to his boat, F/V Tenacious II, when he passed Chris McGuire who was talking to one of the Gloucester captains. McGuire, tall and bearded, is with The Nature Conservancy and was helping install monitoring cameras on a neighboring vessel.
Hesse stopped to chat briefly, then joined his crew, Dan Deane, to begin steaming for a 13-hour trip. All his fishing would be recorded; Hesse, a founder of the group that would become the Fishermen’s Alliance, was an early advocate for using cameras, also known as EM (electronic monitoring), to provide evidence for how fishermen are handling their catch.
“I’ve always felt that since the inception of the organization people have taken a really forward-thinking approach,” said Hesse, who serves as a Fishermen’s Alliance board member.
The Fishermen’s Alliance was piloting cameras on boats as early as 2005. From the outset, there was a lot of distrust (and disgust) about the program. The Alliance knew the drawbacks – how it seemed like Big Brother, concerns about what the data would be used for or who it might be used against. But they saw positives.
Having cameras on the boats would improve science, which in turn would improve management and the businesses of commercial fishermen. Cameras would offer fishermen validation of what they see on the water rather than having their observations dismissed as “anecdotal” or self-serving. There was also the thought that the government’s observer program, which places human observers on certain fishing trips, was expensive and problematic for small, already cramped boats.
And popular or not, requiring EM might have prevented Carlos Rafael – the so-called Codfather – from lying about the kinds and amount of fish he caught, hurting honest fishermen in the process.
Even so, initially the program didn’t go well.
“The first few years were very slow and eventually our boats dropped out of the pilot work because they were burned out taking both cameras and humans,” said Melissa Sanderson, Chief Operating Officer at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
And at the time NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was not yet supportive of electronic monitoring.
That changed in 2015 and the Fishermen’s Alliance redoubled its efforts, with grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and collaboration with The Nature Conservancy and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.
For fishing year 2016, three Cape Cod vessels installed camera systems; now there are about two dozen from Rhode Island to Maine and supporters are hoping to increase that number to 35 vessels by the end of fishing year 2019.
Hesse has been involved in multiple research projects to improve the fisheries, so his participation is not all that surprising. The sudden interest out of Gloucester is what raises eyebrows, as captains who were skeptical of EM are seeing potential benefits.
The pilot has been fielding calls from fishermen around the region who want to get grant-funded cameras, which run $7,000 to $8,000 for the initial set up. And the majority of the fishermen have the cameras running on 100 percent of their groundfish trips, which provides far more information (and accountability) than the typical 15-percent human observer coverage.
Hesse said he sometimes thinks that every fisherman should have been required to put the cameras on. Every fish that comes over the rail is caught on camera and fish that the fishermen can’t harvest are sized on a measuring board so data is solid. Managers will have a better sense of fish populations and there is less of a chance “huge retrospective changes” will blow up business plans.
Hesse has seen business plans implode because of sudden changes in regulations. He has a long perspective, fishing for more than 30 years.
He graduated from Bates College with a degree in physics, but someone asked him to go tuna fishing and he loved it. In the 1980s fishermen were getting a lot of money for tuna; by the time Hesse was out of college it was selling for $8 or $9 a pound. When he graduated from college he was having a great and successful time fishing and so that’s what he did most of the year and then headed to Australia one winter.
When another winter rolled around he went to Antarctica and drove a boat for a National Science Foundation research program.
“That was the best experience,” Hesse said.
Hesse was still doing a lot of fishing on the Cape, and found time to go to UMass Amherst for a graduate degree in environmental engineering.
“I love the Cape, figured it would be a good way to give back,” he said.
But he stayed with fishing for a career, and on a warm spring day this year, he had 16 totes of gear or 4,800 hooks baited with squid to catch haddock.
“They like squid. It has natural oil in it so it puts out a nice scent,” Hesse said. “Mackerel is so soft it falls off.”
When he got to what they called the “sweet spot,” Deane let gear go over the back. The hooks slid off a PVC pipe and squid flew. Each set had 1,200 hooks, with six feet between hooks, and a length of 1.2 miles so there were five miles of gear in total.
“There was a ton of fish there two days ago but we are just as likely to go there today and find nothing,” Hesse said as he maneuvered the boat into position. “There is no usually.”
The area has strong currents and slack tide was around 4 p.m. Hesse planned the trip so each bundle would have about two hours to soak, leaving four to six hours to get everything back into the boat. He planned to be back to the dock before 2 a.m.
Things went well. A lot of haddock came up on the hooks, along with a few other species, some halibut, a few cusk.
“I always liked that aspect of long lining, you have that option of letting fish go alive,” he said.
The haddock were beautiful, with what look like a smudged fingerprint near their fin. They come up alive; Deane guts, ices and brines them to make sure the high quality of the meat is preserved.
Hesse sells his fish to Whole Foods, which has a facility at the Gloucester dock.
“The question I am asked most often in my career is, ‘Where can I get your fish?’” said Hesse. “Before I sold them to Whole Foods I never really had a good answer.”
The supermarket chain prides itself on offering fresh, local food, grown and harvested in a sustainable way. When Hesse and other Cape fishermen met last spring with Whole Foods managers to explain how they fish, they had a good visual aid; footage from the EM camera, proof in real time of live fish coming over the side.
“This is exactly the kind of fishing we want to support,” said one of the Whole Foods managers.
One more benefit of EM.