This high-tech tool can recast fishing

We could all benefit if more U.S. commercial fishing boats used electronic monitoring – even the fish.

Using cameras and sensors, the emerging technology tracks what fishermen catch, simplifying and improving data collection for the fishing industry, cutting costs and helping to protect vulnerable marine life.

EDF is working with a variety of stakeholders and innovators to help take the approach coast to coast.

electronic monitoring infographic

How electronic monitoring works

Today, human observers traveling onboard monitor what fishermen catch. Electronic monitoring systems use video cameras that store images on tamper-proof hard drives for the relevant authorities to review.

More sophisticated systems include high-definition cameras, sensors that monitor use of fishing gear and GPS receivers that track location.

A single key stroke can send data to the government via the internet, saving tax money by making government more efficient.

And the technology continues to advance. Soon systems will use artificial intelligence to identify fish species by shape and size and show when fishing gear is in use, saving time for the people who review the video.

Why monitor fishing?

Managing fishing in a sustainable way needs reliable data and accountability. Both help fishermen run their businesses efficiently – on a level playing field.

Scientists determine the sustainable amount fishermen can catch for each species. The scientists rely on monitoring to track how much the fishermen catch, alerting regulators and fishermen alike as the fishermen approach their limits.

This way, fish populations stay healthy, which means more money for coastal fishing communities.

The current system is outdated

human observer

An observer checks part of a commercial fishing boat's catch.

Credit: NOAA

From a practical standpoint, a single observer can't see every part of a vessel at any given time.

And the expense of having one onboard can burden fishermen and taxpayers, often leading to lax rules on monitoring. For example, only one in seven boats in New England fish with observers.

Electronic systems are already bringing down the cost of monitoring in the Pacific, where the rules are stricter. The technology can lead to better monitoring in New England and elsewhere.

What stands in the way?

Various factors have made widespread adoption slow, even as industry increasingly bears the brunt of human observer costs. The challenges include:

  • Start-up cost – While electronic monitoring costs less than human observers in the long run, a typical multi-camera system and gear sensors can be $8,000 or more. But this cost is often spread over several years, and leasing is an option.
  • Privacy concerns – Some fishermen fear a loss of privacy, while others say crews adapt and eventually don't notice the cameras.
  • Outdated technology – Though vessels that have adopted electronic monitoring can transmit a trove of data, in many cases government systems are not advanced enough to receive and use it.

How we're meeting the challenges

EDF is working with fishing communities across the country to pilot electronic monitoring programs that reward and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

In 2016, we helped get the first major shift toward electronic monitoring approved for three commercial fishing fleets on the West Coast.

And in 2017, along with our fishing partners, we got regulators in New England to commit to overhauling their monitoring program.

If fishermen see electronic monitoring as a cost-effective and efficient tool, they are more likely to embrace it.

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