We are working with fishermen, the regional fishery management councils, and other partners to integrate technology into data collections and observations to improve the timeliness, quality, cost effectiveness, and accessibility of fishery-dependent data. Electronic monitoring has clear potential to meet these challenges by incorporating cameras, gear sensors, and electronic reporting systems into fishing operations. Since 2006, NOAA Fisheries has invested more than $27 million to develop and implement electronic technologies across the nation. We spoke with the National Electronic Technologies Coordinator, Brett Alger, to learn more about electronic monitoring and the future of technology in fishing.
How long have you been involved in electronic monitoring and reporting?
I came to headquarters 8 months ago, but I started in the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 2009 working on the groundfish fishery. Over the past 4 years, I worked on electronic monitoring projects in New England, as well as the vessel monitoring system program and electronic reporting efforts. I also had some exposure to what is happening around the country through our national electronic technologies working group.
What is your role as the National Electronic Technologies Coordinator?
I try to find similarities and differences across the regions; my role is to have a national perspective, and help develop national policies or best practices that all of our programs should be looking at. Where there are regional differences, my role is to put people in touch with one another to determine if a solution in one program can be implemented in another. It’s a balancing act between national consistencies and regional differences.
It’s also important to find similarities to provide recommendations on what we should invest in. For example, everybody has video review and storage challenges, so let’s focus on those issues nationally, rather than every region going at it alone. I hear from electronic technology service providers, non-governmental organizations, council staff, and others, so I try as best I can to help represent our programs on an array of topics across the country.
How can electronic monitoring improve fishing or management?
Trust is paramount in fisheries, and in some cases that trust has been harmed or broken. Working with fishermen and other stakeholders, we see electronic monitoring as a tool to rebuild that trust, to provide verifiable evidence of what fishermen are seeing, or to validate what they’re reporting. We’ll never replace human observers; cameras can’t collect otoliths and scales, and cameras struggle to identify certain species. With electronic monitoring, we can collect a lot more data of certain types, reduce some safety concerns, and take up less space on a small boat—all while driving our fisheries toward better science to support our management decisions. Costs are a huge driver in fisheries, and the costs of electronic monitoring are dropping rapidly. We are already there in some fisheries, but I believe that, in the near future, electronic monitoring will be the most cost-effective way to provide full accountability in all fisheries.
I also think there’s growing potential in using third parties—a university, city, or fishing organization—to compile the information submitted to the agency, such as landings and discards, gear, and all the other elements we use for management and science. Once fishermen find the utility of taking on electronic monitoring and other technologies, and sharing the data with one another, they can harness a powerful asset that could improve their financial portfolio and the management of a fishery.
Has your perspective shifted since being in a national role, compared to working in one region?
In the Northeast, I interacted with fishermen a lot, and I lean on those relationships and conversations in my new role. At the national level, I try to see through the lens of a fisherman and understand the challenges they face. I have found that all of the fisheries around the country are the same in some ways and also different. The cultures are different; the economic structure, geography, distribution, and size and types of vessels—all vastly different.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve seen since being in this role?
A lot of fishermen around the country are at least in their 50s, so these technologies are brand new to them. They are embracing them and it’s cool to see. It’s also exciting to see the partnerships being built—agency staff working with fishermen, non-governmental organizations, electronic monitoring providers, state agencies, and others. The web of people involved continues to grow, and it’s great to see the trust grow with all of our partners.
How are things different from when you first got into electronic monitoring and electronic technologies?
Using technologies available today, you can sit at a desk on land and see what’s happening live on the vessel. If a camera gets knocked out of alignment on some island in Maine or Alaska, you don’t need to fly a person out there. You can log in and readjust that camera at your desk using a joystick.
People coming from non-fisheries backgrounds are assisting with image and data processing, helping build tools to automatically identify fish or skip over video when a vessel is transiting. It’s interesting to see the same technology used for Facebook and self-driving cars also being used for fish.
Some electronic monitoring providers have started to pair up with human observer programs, tapping into regionally distributed staff to have them collect a hard drive from a boat. They can teach the observer to install, repair, or answer questions about a particular electronic monitoring system. There has been some trepidation among observer providers with electronic monitoring, when in fact I see electronic monitoring as another opportunity for observers to diversify what they can offer.
What do you see in the future for electronic monitoring and electronic technologies?
Electronic monitoring will continue to grow, but it will grow faster if we communicate early and often, and get organic buy-in from the captains and crew participating in these programs. Every vessel is different, and electronic monitoring shifts some burdens to the vessel, such as processing catch differently and standing while fish are being discarded. It is important that we learn about those impacts and work with fishermen to build an electronic monitoring program.
As far as technological advances, rather than moving hard drives via humans or the mail, you will start to see video transmitted wirelessly via satellite communications, cellular communications, or wi-fi in a port. You’ll see automated or semi-automated video review in a lot of fisheries in the next few years. Both of these technologies will continue to drive down costs rapidly. I foresee the technology being advanced enough that fishermen can go fishing “hands free.” They will get to the wheelhouse and interact with a single system that collects data to support vessel monitoring systems, electronic reporting, and electronic monitoring, and then capture real-time location, what gear type is being used, what is being discarded, and a lot of other information. But we’ll see.