By Doreen Leggett
Anthony Lucia stands on a wide, red fishing boat in Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich, a video monitor and a tangle of wires behind him, the sound of a drill in the background.
In his hand is a bright white board with perfectly spaced black marks, interspersed with red lines, which will measure fish from nose to tail down to the centimeter.
“I just made this last night,” he says.
Lucia had driven down that morning from Portland, Maine to install four cameras on a fishing boat recently signed up for an electronic monitoring program run by the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Lucia, from New England Marine Monitoring, and Matt Roux, with TEEM Fish, do several installs a year. The long white board is used to measure fish that come aboard to see if they are big enough to be legal or need to be “discarded.”
Lucia and Roux install cameras and watch the video they capture. They are one of approximately six companies across the country hired by either the government or groups such as the non-profit Fishermen’s Alliance to help design and implement initiatives that use cameras to monitor fishing activity.
The initiative offers various advantages; safety, flexibility and better data. The cameras are meant to replace human monitors who can get in the way (and get seasick), recording the catch that comes onboard as well as keeping track of discards. Accurate tallies help create better science that steers regulations and catch limits for all.
Scientists have been basing catch limits on at-sea surveys, landing reports, while estimating discard totals from information recorded by human observers, who are on a small fraction of boats a small fraction of the time. Fishermen have often lamented that spotty coverage, gaps in the science, and the dangers of extrapolation skew the numbers. However, when they report what they see on the water their data is often dismissed as “anecdotal,” or biased.
Cameras recording the catch verify information in real time. They are also meant to help fix a broken system that can ignore and reward bad behavior, hindering the rebuilding of fish stocks.
The so-called “Codfather” Carlos Rafael is a case in point. Rafael, investigators say, doctored landing reports to allow his boats to catch a lot more cod, for example, than allowed, calling them haddock. Since haddock is far more abundant, more of them are allowed to be caught, but cod fetch a higher price. Cameras could have caught the misrepresentation.
This year, while Rafael sits in jail, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering up to 100-percent offshore coverage with either humans or cameras.
Only a fraction of the fleet has thus far taken advantage of the free pilot program offered by the Fishermen’s Alliance. Of New England’s roughly 200 active groundfish boats (boats that target fish such as cod and haddock and pollock) only 20 have volunteered for EM.
Most still use the traditional system of human observers, which has always been more of a problem for smaller boats because there is less room – and more worry – with an extra person. Weather windows and far-flung ports make scheduling difficult as well.
Lucia, who has a degree in biology, was once a fisheries observer. He is a supporter of the EM program though and believes in flexibility.
“Fishermen should have a choice of how they want their data collected,” he says.
What he most appreciates about the program is how it gives fishermen more freedom and access.
“I like it when it allows guys to experiment with gear,” he says. “They might say, ‘I’m going to be fully accountable, let me go do this,’ which is awesome.”
Those experiments – which require federal approval – include switching between groundfish and tuna on the same trip, fishing in an otherwise closed area, or documenting an exploratory fishery using a different net mesh size.
“You can just turn the cameras on and go,” Lucia said.
Well, not quite. Along with the cameras, fishermen also have to submit vessel trip reports, plus extra details about the trip that a human observer would have collected. Organizations such as the Fishermen’s Alliance are advocating for a more streamlined process.
After each week of fishing, hard drives from cameras aboard boats are mailed to New England Marine Monitoring, who process the images into the “cloud” for people like Lucia to watch.
Currently a random 50 percent of recorded trips are watched by reviewers, then most of those trips are double-checked by staff at the federal Northeast Fisheries Science Center. This extra review helps refine video review rules and ensures that the EM service provider is following government standards.
“Sometimes I can watch a whole day of fishing in a few hours, other times it can take five or more hours,” said Lucia, who works with five Cape fishermen. “It depends on the amount of discarded fish.”
The numbers have to be close. The more scarce the species the more precise the numbers need to be. Cod, for example, has the least amount of wiggle room at 25 pounds discrepancy per trip. So if the EM system says 50 pounds were brought on deck, and vessel trip report says 20, that sets off alarm bells.
When a trip “fails,” the amount of reported discards comes from the camera, not the fisherman’s report. But when it passes, the fisherman’s report is verified and used. Trips not reviewed also use the fisherman’s report. This trust in fishermen’s data is a paradigm shift for New England and another reason some fishermen are embracing EM; their work is now considered reliable, used for regulations that effect their livelihoods.
Awaiting directives from the New England Fishery Management Council, the Fishermen’s Alliance, participating fishermen, and project partners have been collaborating with NOAA to develop protocols and an EM manual to make the review process uniform.
“We are helping design what program delivery will look like in this region,” said Amanda Barney, the CEO of TEEM Fish, at a recent national workshop on electronic monitoring in Seattle, Washington.
Much of EM in New England is currently being funded by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation or the government, but someday a portion will likely be funded by fishermen. Back of the envelope calculations suggest that electronic monitoring, at the 50-percent review rate, already is significantly cheaper than human observers. Work is being done to reduce that 50-percent number, but depending on how fishermen split expenses with the government, it may still be unaffordable for some.
At the recent workshop, Bob Dooley, a retired California fisherman who serves on the Pacific Fishery Management Council, spoke about what he saw as unnecessary expenses. He said that regulators didn’t have to store the videos from all trips. They could be deleted once reviewed.
“We don’t store observers on the shelf,” he pointed out.
Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Fishermen’s Alliance, is hoping EM simplifies the lives of fishermen and allows them to concentrate on what they do best: fish.
She hopes future technological advances and data sharing means fishermen aren’t entering the same information into four or more different official portals, as they do now:
“We want fishermen to be able to say, ‘I’m going fishing’ and leave the dock. Let the EM system populate reports that fishermen verify and complete. They don’t want to be sitting in a wet wheelhouse poking a computer screen with fish-slimed gloves on.”