Over the Bar

Nov 28, 2018 | Over the Bar

Cameras on deck

By John Pappalardo

Cameras monitoring every fishing move — isn’t that the very antithesis of what it means to be free and independent offshore?

Believe me, I get it when people rail against what’s called EM, electronic monitoring, as some kind of Big Brother invasion of the fishery and its historic way of life.
But I’ve become convinced that using cameras rather than humans to monitor our fleet not only is better and safer; it’s a crucial way to bring that celebrated way of life back to full health.

To begin to understand why is to understand the importance of a single word at the core of everything we are trying to do, and believe in:


The biggest systemic problem our fishery faces is that what actually shows up on deck can be so different from what shows up in the government reports. This discrepancy is caused in good part because of how we regulate fishing as we try to rebuild stocks. Fishermen are not allowed to catch more than a set amount of each kind of fish, and that amount is not always an accurate reflection of what they observe. So when fishermen catch more of a certain fish (think cod) than is allowed, they have two choices: Report it honestly, and face heavy financial consequences, or heave it overboard and hide the fact that they caught it in the first place.

Not only does this put good fishermen in a really bad dilemma, it also is a big reason why the science that defines our catch limits can be inaccurate. Stock assessments are only as good as the data they use, which comes from two sources – government survey work and fishermen catch reports. If a lot of catch disappears, unreported, then of course stock assessments will be way off. A vicious cycle is created.

Human observers have been put on boats to try to correct this. But we all know that when we are watched, we act differently. Unless there is an observer on every boat every trip, we won’t get the results we’re after. That not only is a very expensive way to go, it also creates conflict on smaller boats; another body in the way, another possibility for an accident. Plus, human observers are not infallible; they miss things, they get seasick, they fall asleep, their paperwork can be sloppy.

Cameras are a way out. Already, two dozen captains in the Northeast have installed them. They’re focused where fish come up, on the rails or in the nets, not the wheelhouse. The data they record goes to a company that reviews it, and compares it against trip reports fishermen file. The images belong to the fishermen, not the government, and are used only to confirm catch and locations. The technology is improving all the time, getting cheaper too.

This practice already is standard on the West Coast. It’s no coincidence that stocks out there are in better shape even as the industry continues to struggle, and the track record is strong enough so that now, every East Coast boat that uses pelagic long lines to hunt for swordfish and tuna is being required to carry cameras.

Here’s another great incentive and potential for EM: For a long time now, fishermen have railed that what they see on the water is dramatically different from what the scientific assessments say. But what fishermen report often gets dismissed as “anecdotal,” unscientific, self-serving.

The hard evidence cameras collect could help end that condescending dismissal of what people who know the most about fishing have to say.

So yes, cameras can be intrusive. But in certain situations they also serve a great function. From airplane pilots to police officers, blackjack dealers to convenience store clerks, they offer proof that almost all of us are honest and responsible. And when a few of us are not, they offer proof of that too.

Because after all, the oceans are not someone’s private home or business. They are part of the great public commons. Whether we like to think about it this way or not, those who fish for a living harvest a public resource. Managing that resource is a public responsibility, and it could be done a helluva lot better. Electronic monitoring should play a big role in that.


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