Waterfront Wisdom - Monitoring our Fisheries

All about methods of monitoring our fishermen...
Doreen Leggett is Community Journalist and Communications Officer with Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance

Long before Carlos Rafael – the so-called Codfather – made millions lying about the kinds and amount of fish he caught out of New Bedford, captains on the Cape were talking about better fishery management.

Rafael was eventually apprehended, but not before hurting honest fishermen. Many of them can’t help but think the fiasco could have been avoided through electronic monitoring – having cameras on boats to document the real catch.

The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance set up a pilot for electronic monitoring for a few fishermen as far back as 2005.

It didn’t go well. There was a lot of suspicion and some anger, even disgust. Cameras felt like Big Brother, and there were concerns about what the images would be used for or who they might be used against.

But supporters, including local fishermen who are still at the forefront of their fisheries today, kept touting the positives. Having cameras on the boats is a boon to science, which can improve the data used to make management decisions. Cameras back up what fishermen see on the water, providing evidence for what often is termed “anecdotal” and dismissed. Cameras level the playing field and should dissuade cheaters (or catch them if they cheat anyway).

Cameras also solve very real problems with human observers, especially on smaller boats. The observer program is expensive, often a scheduling nightmare, observers make mistakes or get seasick, and become an added safety burden for a captain with an extra person on a cramped boat.

Still, the first several years were tough going. But starting in 2015, with help from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), and in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association (MCFA), the Fishermen’s Alliance started a new pilot project. Three fishermen signed on right away and now there are at least 24 boats using cameras from Rhode Island to Maine.

One important incentive of the program is that fishermen volunteering to put cameras on are being allowed to fish in areas that are closed to fishermen without cameras. The rationale: cameras prove 100 percent compliance with regulations and 100 percent of catch is accounted for.  Given 100 percent monitoring, fishermen should receive some business flexibility.  

Now, again with a grant from NFWF, the Fishermen’s Alliance and partners are expanding the pilotprogram as more people see the potential.  

Just this week, grants were awarded through the Electronic Monitoring and Reporting Grant Program, a partnership between NFWF, NOAA, the Walton Family Foundation and the Kingfisher Foundation. The grants will offer $5.7 million in matching contributions. 

“The 14 projects announced today will engage both commercial and recreational fishers to help implement sustainable fishing solutions using the latest electronic technologies,” said Jeff Trandahl, executive director and CEO of NFWF. “These grants will directly support the health and long-term sustainability of U.S. fisheries by increasing the number of vessels using electronic technologies and by improving data collection, review and storage.” 

The $525,000 the Fishermen’s Alliance receives will go toward continuing operation of a successful pilot project, engaging 35 vessels to finalize electronic monitoring standards and ensure that data is effectively stored, shared, and used by regional stock assessment scientists. The hope is to put fishermen’s minds to rest that the information will be used as promised, and that regulators will factor it in when they develop rules. No fisherman wants the information used against them or just sitting on a shelf – or in a cloud.

“Starting in May 2021, New England groundfish sectors will be able to use electronic monitoring systems instead of humans to meet their at sea monitoring requirements,” said Melissa Sanderson, who is spearheading the project for the Fishermen’s Alliance. “These grant funds will pay for one last year of testing different ways to use cameras on fishing boats to collect information, both on what is being thrown overboard and if the fishing regulations are being followed.  We will also work with NOAA scientists and fisheries managers to develop clear EM instructions for fishermen, video reviewers and data analysts.” 

There are fishermen on the Cape who hope that the Northeast fisheries become 100 percent monitored, as on the West Coast, where accountability restored the West Coast groundfishery ahead of schedule. They also hope that more incentives are put in place to convince more fishermen that total accountability is a good business decision.

New England’s groundfishery, which in­cludes cod as well as haddock, flounders, and many other species, has not experienced a strong rebuilding in spite of strict regulations. Lack of monitoring may be stymying that recovery. If fishermen don’t accurately portray the amount of discards they have, lowballing the amount of fish they throw overboard to reduce how much money they have to pay for more quota, the system breaks down while honest fishermen get hurt. 

Managing the fisheries better also is a community goal. Eating local fish, and supporting the small, smart, independent businessmen that bring it home, benefits the economy as well as the ocean we all rely upon. The ocean is the public commons, those who fish for a living harvest a public resource. Doing right by that resource is a collective responsibility and electronic monitoring should help us do it better.

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