Electronic monitoring involves the use of cameras or other electronic systems on fishing vessels to collect catch data and ensure that vessels comply with current regulations. Since 2000, Alaska has been at the forefront of a nationwide NOAA Fisheries effort to install electronic monitoring systems on fishing vessels. And in 2018, the next phase of their electronic monitoring program will be implemented, focusing on vessels roughly 40 to 60 feet in length. We spoke with Chris Rilling, Division Director for the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, and his colleague, Jennifer Mondragon at the Alaska Regional Office, to learn more about the upcoming implementation effort.
How does the upcoming 2018 implementation differ from previous electronic monitoring efforts in Alaska?
JM – The compliance monitoring program we currently have in place is for large catcher-processors and mother ships. In those programs we have observers onboard who collect data for in-season management, and the video is used as a way of monitoring compliance with particular regulations. What we are doing in this 2018 program is working with a totally new fleet—fixed gear catcher vessels (much smaller boats)—and the goal of the program is completely different from compliance monitoring. We are using the data collected off the video to assess the total amount of catch and bycatch, and then we are using that information for in-season management. So, two different goals of electronic monitoring and very different vessels.
Do people need to review the footage to manually add up and identify the species?
JM – Yes, the hard drives from the EM systems on the boat are sent to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in Portland, and video reviewers count and identify the fish on the video.
How can we ensure that the cameras are accurately counting fish?
CR –Numerous levels of quality control are integrated into the electronic monitoring process.
When we were doing pre-implementation testing, we gathered data from both video and observers, and we compared what was counted on the boats versus what was counted off the video to make sure they could accurately count and get good species information. The observer program has worked closely with the people doing the video review to ensure they are consistently identifying species correctly. Every month video reviewers trade and review another person’s videos to make sure we are getting good consistency between video reviewers.
When the information is transmitted to us, we run it through quality control procedures just as we do with observer data to look for outliers, errors, etc. We also have vessel monitoring plans for every boat. Every boat has a description of where their system is installed on the boat and what the camera can see, and the vessel is required to stay in compliance.
Are the cameras developed by NOAA or do we work with a third party to build and test them?
CR – Most of the camera equipment currently in use is purchased or provided by the electronic monitoring service providers. These standard camera systems have been on the market for quite some time. At the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, we have been working on innovative technologies to collect additional data and automate some of the processes that are currently done through human review of the video. We are working on what we call “machine vision systems” that would ultimately result in automation of species identification and also estimating length of the fish being brought on board. This is still a new technology, and we would like to integrate it into the existing electronic monitoring program in the future.
As camera systems become more common, will we see the observer program phased out?
CR – I do not see observers being phased out. We will always need observers, particularly to collect biological samples, which you obviously cannot do with an electronic monitoring system. That’s a really important part of their job—to collect biological information that allows us to determine the age of the fish caught, and that feeds into stock assessment models, which ultimately result in quotas being established for the fishery.
There might be ways to expand our electronic monitoring fleet and continue to collect biological data, but we have not gotten to that point yet. We are keeping our observer program intact while trying to collect data using electronic monitoring on vessels that in the past we’ve had a difficult time getting observers onto. Many vessels had difficulty carrying an observer for various reasons (e.g., insufficient bunk space or life raft capacity). In many cases we had to release those vessels from observer coverage simply because there wasn’t any room for the observers.
What is the end goal for this program? Would you like to have a camera on every vessel in Alaska?
CR – I do not think every vessel is going to end up with an electronic monitoring system. There is certainly a lot of cost involved in purchasing and installing the equipment, collecting the hard drives, and doing the video review. So, what makes the most sense from a data collection standpoint? Where can we deploy observers where it makes the most sense, and in what capacity do we want to deploy electronic monitoring systems?
We need to look at the portions of the fleet that pose difficulties for data collection, particularly vessels less than 40 feet in length. So, if there’s a way to collect data on the unobserved portion of the fleet, I think that would certainly be a direction we want to go.
JM – One of our hopes in developing an electronic monitoring program is to realize some cost efficiencies by using electronic monitoring systems compared to deploying observers. Once you make the upfront investment of buying the equipment, then the cost for the electronic monitoring program will go down as the program matures. We have not really demonstrated that yet because we’ve been in pre-implementation mode and we’ve been doing a lot of build-up buying these systems for the boats. But it’s definitely a goal to see cost reductions over time.