Electronic Monitoring Explained

Successful fisheries management is dependent upon the collection of data from fishing activities. Learn how NOAA Fisheries is investing in technology fishermen use to track their catch. These new technologies hold promise in making data collection more timely, accurate, and cost-efficient.

What is electronic monitoring?

Electronic monitoring a tool used to collect fishing data including:

  • The number of fish that are caught.
  • Fishing effort (e.g., number of hours or days spent fishing).
  • Bycatch.

These data support and improve stock assessments and ensure that catch limits are sustainable in the long term. NOAA Fisheries is investing in technology that fishermen use to track their catch. These new technologies hold promise in making data collection more timely, accurate, and cost-efficient.

View from digital camera mounted on fishing vessel showing fisherman hauling a skate over the rail.

This on-board camera is fliming activities on a fishing vessel. Technologies like this and new softrware capable of identifying and measuring different fish species may supplement human fishery observers. 

Why do we monitor fisheries?

Successful fisheries management is dependent on the data collected about fishing activities. Fishing is big business, supporting millions of American jobs and billions in sales. Abundant ocean fisheries are the engine that drives these economic benefits. A big part of sustainably managing these fisheries is keeping track of fishermen’s catch. More accurate and timely data will benefit our fisheries stock assessments by improving the information we use to manage them sustainably.

We also monitor fishing activities to determine bycatch. Fishing gear can accidentally capture protected species, such as marine mammals and sea turtles. NOAA Fisheries works with the fishing industry to develop or modify fishing gear and practices to conserve protected species.

How do we monitor fisheries?

Traditionally, we’ve relied on a combination of surveys, paper logbooks, and independent observation to count what fishermen catch and toss back. More recently, we’ve invested in new digital data collecting technologies. These technologies include:

  • Electronic reporting of fishing trip data by fishermen (e.g., catch and landings). 
  • Electronic reporting of purchase data by dealers or processors.
  • Electronic monitoring equipment such as video cameras that capture information on fishing location and catch.

How widely are electronic monitoring technologies being implemented?

Many fisheries across the United States have, or are currently working to, integrate electronic monitoring and reporting tools into their data collection programs. For example, on-board cameras were added to boats in the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery to track the bycatch of bluefin tuna. In Alaska, four fleets have fully implemented electronic monitoring. These fleets fish for groundfish including walleye pollock, the biggest and one of the most valuable catches in the nation. There are plans to implement more monitoring programs in other fisheries in coming years.

There is interest in every region to take advantage of the efficiencies in using electronic reporting. A number of electronic logbook and e-reporting programs—involving recreational charter and headboats, as well as commercial fisheries—are in place or in the testing phase.

What’s being done to get this new technology used more broadly?

NOAA Fisheries provides financial support to develop and implement electronic technologies. This includes supporting more than 30 pilot projects to experiment with various technologies.

In 2014, we put in place regional electronic technology implementation plans informed by a series of national-level planning documents. We created these plans to help us move beyond pilot projects by identifying, evaluating, and prioritizing implementation of promising electronic technologies in specific fisheries around the country.

What are some challenges to implementation of monitoring programs?

We’ve learned from experience that moving from pilot projects to full implementation involves some growing pains.

Some of the real-world practical challenges include complex hardware and software, varied boat sizes and designs, and the damage that can be done to electronics when exposed to saltwater and pounding waves.

We’ve also identified a number of policy and data-related challenges presented by adoption of new technologies. These include the handling of the enormous amount of data involved and effects on time series of data used in stock assessments.

But by far the most talked about challenges are the relative costs of various approaches and who pays for these new technologies.

Fishing boat in harbor.

The electronic monitoring system on this fishing vessel includes cameras attached to the vessel’s stabilizers. Photo: NOAA

Does technology make data collection more cost-effective?

It depends. Cost comparison studies between electronic monitoring and the use of human, at-sea fishery observers for two hypothetical fisheries in the Northeast found that electronic monitoring may be a cost-effective option in some cases, but not in others:

We are also learning a great deal from our experience implementing systems in pilot programs. While we have not seen across-the-board cost savings in all fisheries, we expect that electronic monitoring and reporting costs could decrease in the future as we work collaboratively with industry and the private sector to refine these systems.

What’s next for electronic monitoring?

Emerging technologies such as smart phones, on-board video cameras, and e-logbooks hold the promise of better information, better decision-making, and better fishing. Even facial recognition technology may soon allow for more efficient collection of fisheries data. But as with any new technology, the promise of advancement must be balanced against results, feasibility, and cost.

Handheld device

Major advancements are being made. For example, automation is coming to Alaska fishing boats in the form of cameras and sensors to track what’s coming and going over the rails. Starting in 2018, electronic monitoring systems can officially replace human fishery observers as fishery data collectors on Alaska boats using longline and pot gear. 

In the years to come, developing thoughtful solutions to cross-cutting issues and numerous fishery-specific challenges will require collaboration and planning. NOAA Fisheries is committed to providing national guidance as our regional offices work with local partners and fishing communities on a systematic approach toward adopting new technologies.