WILMINGTON — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is weighing the pros and cons of transitioning to an electronic monitoring system for federally managed fisheries, according to a presentation given Dec. 2 at a meeting of the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council at the Hilton Riverside in Wilmington.
“There have been people looking at this for a while,” said George Lapointe, an independent consultant and former commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources. “The project goal is to evaluate emerging technologies for us in fishery-dependent data collections.”
Monitoring, which provides officials with compliance data and species information, is a key part of the fishery management process, designed to keep fish populations at sustainable levels by preventing overfishing.
Currently, that monitoring is conducted by human observers, who tag along on fishing boats and record what they see. Typically, they’re watching to make sure that fishermen are complying with regulations, but observations also include biological information, such as species composition and weight.
The electronic monitoring system would change that process by using a computerized camera device to record observations, requiring minimal human participation. The device — a computer with a removable hard drive and from two to four cameras — attaches to a boat, sitting idle until sensors are activated by the vessel’s fishing net reel and hydraulic system. The cameras then turn on, recording footage on the device’s hard drive, which is removed at the end of each fishing trip. The system wouldn’t eliminate human observers, but would limit their use, potentially saving thousands of dollars over time.
“It doesn’t mean there will be no more observers, but it certainly means there would be a lot more use of computer systems,” Lapointe said. “They’re less intrusive and more cost-effective.”
Fisheries in some states, including Alaska, are already using the devices; but expanding their use is complicated. It’s currently unclear who would fund the costly installation process, and some aspects of the electronic monitoring process are impractical for larger fleets. For example, removing the hard drive from a monitoring system on one fishing boat is a realistic daily task — not so much for 750 vessels.
Stakeholders, including fishery officials, are currently compiling regional plans that weigh the feasibility, and pros and cons, of switching to the electronic system. Those reports, due next December, will explain in detail why the system would, or wouldn’t, work in a particular fishery. There’s currently no timeline for widespread implementation, though Lapointe said it could happen in the near future.
“Overall, there’s a strong interest in adopting new technologies,” he said. “We have the technology to do it now. I’m certain of it. But there are still questions.”