CHATHAM, Mass. — With fleets on the West Coast and in Alaska, members of the East Coast swordfishing and herring fleets and 20 New England groundfishermen all using cameras to record their fishing, the technology is gaining ground as a fisheries management tool, including off Cape Cod.
This year, Cape fishermen — pioneers of the movement in New England — working with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, along with members of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, are set to reap some unexpected benefits for their willingness to play guinea pig: greater access to Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of the most valuable fish in the sea.
This was the second year the fishing activity of Mike Russo and his crew was recorded by cameras as voluntary participants in a program to replace costly human fishery observers. Instead of occasionally carrying an observer — at-sea-monitors are only required on 16 percent of all groundfish trips — Russo and other local fishermen volunteered for electronic monitoring on 100 percent of their trips.
“It’s proving that we are responsible stewards of the ocean, that we are fishing in a responsible way within the laws set out for us,” said Nick Muto, who fishes out of Harwich and Chatham and carries three of the cameras on his vessel.
A 2016 report by The Nature Conservancy showed that in 2015, 92 percent of videos were good enough for technicians to get catch and discard data and weight and length estimates, up from 23 percent in 2013, as crews and researchers learned to work with the system. Christopher McGuire, marine program manager for the conservancy, expects the development of video recognition software that will automate data gathering is imminent and will greatly reduce the cost of electronic monitoring.
“Monitoring is expensive and people are expensive,” McGuire said.
On smaller vessels, less than 60 feet long, space is at a premium, and carrying an additional person can be burdensome. They are also expensive. Fishermen in New England’s groundfish fleet are required to pay around $700 a day when they carry observers, although that has been subsidized in recent years by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA paid 85 percent of the costs, or $568,000, for observed trips last year.
Fishermen currently pay nothing for electronic monitoring. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation covered the $7,000 per boat installation costs and the $200-$400 cost of technicians reviewing each video.
Along with that higher level of accountability came opportunities to refine regulations and allow fishermen to catch more fish. Russo, Muto and one other Cape fisherman, and two fishermen from Maine have been granted exemptions by NOAA for using electronic monitoring. Beginning in January, they will be able to switch from groundfish to Atlantic bluefin tuna — which can fetch hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars per fish — without having to return to port.
The video cameras, which are focused on the work areas, switch on when a vessel leaves port and remain on until it returns. Fishermen, with help from alliance, The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, The Nature Conservancy, and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute successfully made the case to the New England Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries Service that video monitoring was capable of tracking which gear was being used to catch groundfish and tuna.
“For me, it’s just restoring historical participation,” said Russo, who works out of Provincetown.
When he first started fishing, Cape fishermen routinely caught whatever was available when they left port. While they may have been intent on landing cod, they switched to bluefin tuna if they encountered them.
“The first bluefin tuna I ever hooked was on slack water on a tub trawl,” Russo said.
With the precipitous decline of Atlantic bluefin tuna stocks in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, regulations required they could only be caught using harpoons, rod-and-reel, and a smaller net known as a purse seine. In order to insure compliance, a gillnet vessel, for example, could not have that gear on board while catching tuna. It meant an expensive and time-consuming return to port, to offload fish and the gear, before heading back out with rods and reels on a separate trip. The exemption allows them to remain at sea and simply switch gear.
McGuire sees similar opportunities in other fisheries: fishermen catching groundfish could switch to smaller mesh nets to catch squid without having to return to shore; lobstermen could use videos to avoid possible sanctions by demonstrating how much groundfish, particularly cod, they catch in their pots.
“One advantage to electronic monitoring is that it is on all the time,” said Brett Alger, the electronic technology coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. “The cameras don’t sleep.”
McGuire feels the use of electronic monitoring will gain wider acceptance in a New England fishery council revision of the groundfish management plan that could be finalized in the next one to two years, which will list it as an accepted option instead of its current status as a pilot program.
“I share the frustration that fishermen have,” Alger said of more than a decade of pilot programs in the Northeast without the data being incorporated into stock assessments.
Alger is optimistic that technological improvements will improve speed, accuracy, and cut costs to the point where it is used in estimating fish populations. Technological improvements will greatly reduce costs within two to three years, Alger said. Fishermen may be able to go out, much as they did 40 years ago, and catch the fish that are there on any given day, with nets or baited hooks, because they can demonstrate they are following the rules.
“These are technological gains that will tip the scale,” Alger said. “A critical mass is forming.”
Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com