NOAA Fisheries caught up with Rick Bellavance over the summer to ask about his experiences using electronic reporting and electronic monitoring. He’s a charter fisherman out of Point Judith, Rhode Island and a member of the New England Fishery Management Council. This is the first of a two-part interview focusing on electronic reporting.
A Love of Fishing—And Data
How did you get started in fishing?
I got my first boat when I was 10 years old, and would run around Narragansett Bay fishing for winter flounder, quahogs, and hardshell clams. When I was 22, I was hired by the fire department, and one of the other firefighters was a charter boat captain. He offered me a crew position on his charter boat, and I ended up working for him for seven seasons, and really learned the business. In 1996, my father and I went in together on the Priority Too and I started working for myself.
Why did you start using electronic reporting to submit your catch reports?
One of my good friends calls me a “closet data geek”—I’ve always been interested in my own data, always kept a logbook. Even as a teenager digging hard shell clams in Narragansett Bay, I meticulously maintained a log of what I caught and when I caught it. So I’ve always had an interest in data. But the real catalyst was when I received a “nastygram” from the Regional Office. It said that if I didn’t complete my vessel trip reports, I wasn’t going to be eligible to reapply for annual permit. So, I sat down in front of my wood stove in December after fishing all year and filled out a hundred vessel trip reports.
After that, I decided I was taking the family out to dinner because I had lost the desire to cook. At the restaurant, I watched the staff tap things on a computer and hand me a bill, and I thought, “I want that for fishing! It would be so much easier.” That’s when I started looking into it. I love it now. We do electronic vessel trip reports all the time, and it really is so much easier.
Feedback on Electronic Reporting
What do you like most about using electronic reporting software?
It’s easy to use and I can complete my vessel trip report before I even get off the boat. It gives me peace of mind—I don’t have to remember to do them at home and lug that heavy pad around. I don’t have to remember to order more forms in the height of the season when we’re as busy as can be.
Is there anything you don’t like about electronic reporting?
As with any new system, updates to the software are required from time to time and that’s the worst part. Any time a state or federal agency changes something—they might want more data or a particular kind of data—the program needs to be updated. Occasionally there are bugs in the new system that take a little time to work out. That can be frustrating.
In 2016, you started working with the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to make electronic reporting for the recreational charter and headboat fishery mandatory. What was your rationale behind that?
I’m a firm believer that as a business operator, I need stable regulations and regulations that make sense for my segment of the recreational fishery. If we accurately report on our effort and catch on a timely basis, that will improve the quality of the data available to managers. I believe that this will, in turn, improve the regulations.
What would be the best thing we could do to improve electronic reporting?
It would be really helpful if all the reporting requirements and programs were the same. Right now, I have to report my highly migratory species, bluefin tuna in particular, in a different way than I do my vessel trip report. We should be able to provide all the information in one standardized way.
Since becoming mandatory, what has the feedback been from other for-hire and head boat captains been like?
The ones I know here [in Point Judith] are all huge supporters of it. They feel the same way I do, that it is a lot easier than the paper reporting system that we used to have.
For the people who don’t like electronic reporting, what is their main reason?
The comments I've heard are: They’re not going to use this data anyway, they’re still going to ask my customers what we caught, so why should we bother doing this? Another thing I have heard is: I want to get something for giving them something. We need better regulations that are better for our business if we provide this data. It’s not fair that we provide the data they need, and they don’t improve management.