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Looking Forward to Looking Back: Electronic Monitoring in New England Groundfish

A Message from John Bullard, Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Region

Electronic monitoring (EM) is being used for catch monitoring and reporting compliance in fisheries worldwide, but use in the Northeast has been somewhat limited. There are always challenges with ensuring the accuracy of self-reported fisheries catch data, but EM represents a new suite of tools to improve reporting accuracy and increase catch monitoring. If we want to provide scientists with the best information possible and manage our fisheries sustainably, then we need to consider all of the tools in the toolbox.

Here in the Greater Atlantic Region’s groundfish fishery, fishermen are considering EM to replace human at-sea monitors. Naturally, people want to compare costs. This is understandable; the cost of at-sea monitors is significant and has been the subject of much discussion, particularly because a portion of the costs are now borne by the industry. However, comparing only the costs of EM and at-sea monitors, as the programs exist today, without any context to what the programs offer, is unfair, difficult, and a bit premature.

Comparing the costs of the two programs is unfair because EM and at-sea monitors offer such different results. Right now, the at-sea monitoring program covers 14 percent of all trips. With a large portion of the fishery going unobserved and recognizing that fishing behavior may be different on unobserved trips, we may be missing out on a lot of critical information. EM could gather data from all trips, which is a quantum leap in the amount of information available to scientists. This could result in better science and potentially lower uncertainty when setting quotas. So while at-sea monitoring is a cost, EM could be an investment.

Comparing the costs is difficult because this is a classic case of apples and oranges; certain components of EM, like purchasing hardware and video review, don’t exist in an at-sea monitoring program. The EM cost estimates in our 2015 report were very conservative at every step, and when totaled, were quite high. That was a government exercise in assessing costs, but industry may be able to do better. When the government shifted the costs of at-sea monitoring to the fishing industry, the private sector negotiated lower costs for the same services. Is anyone surprised by that? And just like any electronic technology, EM is getting smaller, faster, and cheaper in a hurry. It is very difficult to project a cost for technology that will likely go into widespread use in a couple of years.

That brings me to my final point. Cost comparisons are premature. We don't know what EM models we might use in the future. We don't know if we can get financial support for startup costs, such as hardware acquisition. We don't know how much of the video will need to be reviewed; review may even be done by computers. We don't know what the required at-sea monitoring coverage will be when EM is fully developed. There are too many critical unknowns right now in EM to compare costs in a meaningful way.

So what do we know?

We have been working with partners to investigate the “audit model,” where EM runs on all trips and verifies a captain’s reported discards. This is probably better for smaller vessels with lower volumes of catch. We will be announcing several projects on these efforts soon. We are also working with partners to investigate the “maximized retention model,” where EM runs on all trips and vessels retain all allocated groundfish. EM then verifies compliance of catch retention requirements and a dockside program verifies landings. This model is probably better for larger vessels with higher volumes of catch, and we will be announcing a project on this too. We hope to learn a lot from these projects, including how to improve data quality for management and science and, yes, we’ll learn even more about investing in EM.

Let's focus on how to maximize the benefits of EM. And let's see if we can find a way to translate significant increases in monitoring and accountability to more fish for fishermen. Let's see if we can make EM an investment we want to make, not a burden we have to shoulder.