For more than 35 years, Captain Sonny Gwin has fished commercially out of Ocean City, Maryland. He targets lobster and sea bass on the F/V Skilligalee alongside two crew members. Like all captains, he must submit reports on his fishing activity to different reporting entities.
For most of his career, this meant filling out a federal paper logbook, with copies for the state and dealers. He had to submit it by mail, generally on a monthly basis. This also meant stacks and stacks of paper in his shop, some dating back decades. A member of the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, Gwin faced the decision in 2018 on whether to support mandatory electronic reporting in the Greater Atlantic region. He voted in favor of the new technologies that would allow data submission from smartphones and tablets.
“You’ve always got your phone and it basically has your information at your fingertips,” says Gwin. While implementing electronic vessel trip reports (eVTRs) has had its challenges, the efforts have led to more timely, higher quality data that better support science and management. They also streamline reporting requirements by enabling submissions to multiple entities through a single app, currently only available in SAFIS eTRIPS/mobile, and give the industry a better sense of where they stand on species quotas.
"Better Data Faster"
The road to this transition has been a long one. Voluntary electronic reporting became available over a decade ago, in 2011. “Managers saw the potential for electronic technologies to gain better data faster,” explains Barry Clifford, Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Dependent Data Coordinator. Instead of receiving logbooks in the mail monthly or weekly, they could receive data on a rolling basis.
They could also greatly reduce the amount of time and effort required for quality assurance. That includes the time needed to manually enter data and to send logbooks back and forth in the mail to captains when corrections were needed. This could ultimately make data available much sooner, along with greatly reducing staffing costs. “Weekly or monthly submissions did not result in weekly or monthly data” under this system, notes Clifford.
Still, it took some time for a mandatory move away from paper records. The Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council took action in 2018 to require electronic logbooks. The initiative started with the for-hire fleet and then moved to most of the commercial fisheries in the region in late 2021. They require eVTR submissions within 48 hours of vessel landings.
For NOAA Fisheries, there were two key challenges to implementing the requirements. The first was on the technology side. “To scale it up for the entire fishery, we had to develop more robust infrastructure and applications, along with establishing support staff and help desks, so we had to make a commitment as an organization to find those resources,” says Clifford.
The Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office built its own mobile submission application, Fish Online, and published technical specifications online for others to develop applications. Currently, there are five applications approved for use. This is one of the advantages of NOAA's approach. Independent software developers have the information they need to bring apps to market, and fishers have options to choose the one that works best for them.
Working Together with the Fishing Community
The second implementation challenge was training and outreach to educate the industry. The initial plan for a year-long rollout was interrupted by COVID-19. We had to pivot from in-person workshops, dock visits, and trade shows to virtual seminars and other online options. Many fishers turned to their children and grandchildren to help them navigate the new technical options.
NOAA Fisheries staff, particularly port agents, convened dozens of webinars with FishOnline training and SAFIS eTRIPS/mobile training by staff at the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program. The port agents also staffed a help desk that received up to 30 calls a day.
Leadership within the industry—fleet managers, groundfish sector managers, and individual captains—who adopted electronic reporting early was invaluable in training captains and crew on the various applications.
“In general, it’s been a very good year” of outreach, says Greater Atlantic Region Port agent William Duffy. Now captains can turn to one another for assistance as well. “Some of the people who had the most trouble at the beginning became some of the best teachers; there’s always someone on the dock now who knows” how to help others.
Additionally, the efforts also helped port agents to build stronger relationships with the industry, particularly after the disruptions of the pandemic. Before the rollout, Duffy might receive a few calls from the fishing industry per month. Now he gets several calls a day on a range of issues. “They know that if there’s any type of problem, not just on eVTRs, there’s a person they can call.”
Gwin agrees. “There were a few hiccups in the transition, and some of the older captains had some challenges with the technology, but they’ve worked through it. I’ve heard of good experiences with the help line, and the port agents went above and beyond to help.”
"A Huge Improvement"
The electronic vessel trip reports have improved reporting timeliness and reduced reporting errors. “Through the use of electronic reporting, we truly do see a huge improvement in the quality of the data. When they are submitted, validation checks are done right then and there,” explains Clifford. “If captains forget to enter a field or put in a bad value, that’s immediately flagged.” Compliance rates for report submissions within the required 48 hours after the end of a trip have improved from 58 percent in November 2021 to 84 percent in October 2022. Further, when including late submissions, 98 percent of the reports are received within 7 days.
Taken together, this has drastically reduced the time in which vessel data is made available for management and science. “This has significant benefits for quota monitoring and stock assessments,” says Duffy. “The information is coming in fast; if they’re reporting instantaneously, we can get it down to the last million pounds instead of shutting it down preemptively because of the lack of data. The more accurate and timely the data are, the more they can fish.”
In the coming months, electronic vessel trip reports will be implemented in the lobster fishery. That will mean complete electronic reporting coverage of federally managed fisheries in the Greater Atlantic encompassing 4,700 permitted vessels, of which 3,000 actively fish. But that doesn’t mean the work is done. “We are continually looking to improve the quality of the data coming in the door,” says Clifford. “We are always adding validation checks to improve the quality of the data, and there are ongoing application modifications to make them more intuitive and better-functioning for captains.”
Other potential efforts include using the electronic vessel trip reports to streamline other required reporting, such as vessel monitoring system and observer-related declarations. That would allow captains to only enter permit numbers, gear types, and other information once per trip. Additionally, the Greater Atlantic Region Fisheries Office and the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program are providing their best practices and lessons learned as a road map for other regions to follow as they implement electronic reporting.
Many aspects of this project have been funded through competitive awards by the Fisheries Information System program, a state-regional-federal partnership supporting sound, science-based fisheries management. Clifford stresses that working with the program means more than just funding. “The program is all about bringing people together to collaborate and learn from one another,” he says. “That’s been a key part of our success to date, and will help us share what we’ve done across NOAA Fisheries in the future.”
For Gwin, the convenience and the reduction in paper clutter have been great benefits, but the biggest improvement has been more timely data to help with quota monitoring. “While it has been a difficult transition for some, the benefits outweigh the difficulties,” he says.