A large part of sustainably managing our nation’s fisheries is collecting fisheries-dependent data from fishermen. Traditionally, we’ve relied on a combination of paper logbooks from fishermen, catch data (landings and discards) from independent observers, and landings data from shoreside dealers. In some fisheries, it is logistically more feasible and safer to use electronic monitoring and reporting to collect catch data. Electronic monitoring is an important technological advancement that supplements the work fishery observers and at-sea monitors do, while keeping them as safe as possible.
New data reporting and collecting technologies range from electronic reporting of fishing trip data by fishermen (and catch, landings, and purchase data by dealers or processors), to electronic monitoring equipment such as video cameras and gear sensors that capture information on fishing location, catch, and discards. These electronic monitoring systems can also be used to monitor compliance with catch retention requirements or bycatch of protected resources for certain fisheries.
Currently, electronic monitoring programs have been implemented in five U.S. fisheries. The most recent, in 2015, uses on-board cameras to track the bycatch of bluefin tuna on boats in the Atlantic pelagic longline fishery. In the Northeast, there are pilot projects in the groundfish fishery and the midwater-trawl herring mackerel fishery, with full implementation expected in the next few years. Electronic monitoring will be fully implemented in the West Coast whiting and fixed gear fisheries, and in the bottom trawl fishery and non-whiting midwater trawl fisheries, by 2019. It will also be implemented in 2018 in the Alaska small boat fixed gear and pot fisheries.
Other current initiatives to implement electronic monitoring include the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico commercial fisheries and the HMS pelagic longline fishery in 2017, and the for-hire fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and Mid-Atlantic in 2018 and 2019. Electronic reporting is also approved for use in the Northeast, but on a voluntary basis.
We have provided approximately $27 million since 2006 to develop and implement electronic technologies, including supporting pre-implementation of new electronic monitoring programs and more than 30 pilot projects to experiment with various technologies. Different regions and fisheries have vastly different needs, so in early 2015 each region published regional electronic technology implementation plans to identify and evaluate promising electronic technologies in specific fisheries around the country. Since release of the regional plans, there have been four bi-annual updates. We’ve allocated more than $8 million to support the use of electronic technologies and worked through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other partners to support additional public/private partnerships. In 2016, Congress provided an additional $6.7 million to support implementation of electronic technology programs.
However, we still do not have electronic monitoring in a number of fisheries. Successful use of electronic monitoring technologies must take into account 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. These are just some of the real-world practical challenges. 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 generated by electronic monitoring, effects on time series of data used in stock assessments, confidentiality, and cost allocation between government and non-government partners.
By far the most talked about challenges of electronic monitoring and reporting are the relative costs of various approaches and who pays for these new technologies. In addition to physical problems like fogged lenses and low light, the costs of reviewing and archiving tremendous volumes of video data can eat into any potential cost savings. In 2015, we conducted a cost comparison between electronic monitoring and the use of human observers for two hypothetical fisheries in the Greater Atlantic Region. We found that electronic monitoring may be a cost-efficient option in some cases, but not in others.
We are also learning from our experience with earlier pilot projects and implementation of electronic monitoring systems. 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.
Emerging technologies offer the possibility of better information, better decision-making, and better fishing. As with any new technology, this promise must be balanced against results, feasibility, and cost. There are several initiatives around the country, including at the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center, to use computer vision—a type of image recognition based on artificial intelligence—to automatically identify fish species and generate the weight estimates needed to set sustainable catch and bycatch limits.
Developing thoughtful solutions to these cross-cutting issues and numerous fishery-specific challenges requires collaboration and planning. We will continue to provide national guidance as our regions work with partners and fishing communities on a systematic approach toward adopting new technologies, as well as developing new technologies to monitor fisheries more efficiently and cost effectively.
We also realize that in some fisheries, the costs of electronic monitoring will outweigh any savings. In others, electronic monitoring will be the way to go. As we learn how to build better systems, and as new technology comes online, more fisheries will fall into the second category.
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