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Researchers, Fishermen Pursue Cost-Saving Measures for Groundfish Industry

Apr 22, 2015

Local fishermen have wrapped up the second year of a pilot project testing an innovative approach to improving catch monitoring and safety at sea in the New England groundfish fishery. They have been testing electronic monitoring (EM) systems with digital cameras to document the amount of fish discarded at sea due to landing restrictions. The goal is to develop an accurate, cost-effective, and safer alternative to the human observers that fishermen are currently required to carry on their fishing boats.

With the news this past fall from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that Gulf of Maine cod is at 3 to 4 percent of its target levels, the importance of accurate monitoring of fishing activities has never been greater, and the profit margin for fishermen has never been smaller. Researchers and fishermen are working together to develop a more effective and affordable solution to address the high cost of collecting this vital data for New England fisheries.

“We need to get better information on catch and discards into the management process if we are going to rebuild our groundfish (fish like cod, haddock, and flounders) populations and sustain our fishing businesses,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and one of the project partners. “It’s clear to me these electronic monitoring systems can help make that happen.”

Federal regulations require that information, such as the amount of fish being caught but thrown back because they are the wrong species or size (often called bycatch or discards), be reported for each fishing trip. The collaborative research team – led by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), The Nature Conservancy, Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, and Ecotrust Canada – is testing a new suite of electronic equipment that would replace the human at-sea monitors currently tasked with collecting these data.

GMRI and Ecotrust Canada technicians have outfitted participating boats with an EM control box that uses open source software for data collection, and the essential data collection components, including digital cameras, GPS, hydraulic pressure sensors, and powerful removable hard drives that store data prior to analysis.

"Using the electronic monitoring system really didn't add too much extra work to our fishing day, and I think it is something that fishermen will get behind if it can give us a safer alternative to taking human observers on our boats,” said Troy Bichrest, a project participant who fishes out of Cundy’s Harbor.

In the second year of the project, seven participating fishermen collected data on over 150 fishing days. Preliminary results indicate strong correlation between numbers and species of fish being discarded reported in captains’ logbooks and the video footage. Additional analysis will be conducted next fishing year to identify ways to improve accuracy and precision.  The final report from the second year of the project, which gives more detailed results and improvements being made for next fishing year, is available on GMRI’s website: http://www.gmri.org/our-work/fishing-industry-innovation/electronic-monitoring/our-progress  

Through the operationalization of the EM system the project is currently testing, the project team aims to provide a cost-effective alternative to some at-sea monitoring programs.  The current methods of gathering the important data with human observers are expensive with at-sea costs ranging from $500 to $800 per day. Processing the data collected at sea and associated administration are additional expenses covered by the NMFS.

In the past, federal funding has covered both the at-sea and administrative costs associated with these observers. However, new proposed regulations will limit NMFS funding for the at-sea costs, which means that they will likely be transferred to fishermen this fall, unless a recent budget amendment passed by the Senate provides funding for at-sea monitoring.

Since December 2014, the research team has been collaborating with NMFS on developing design elements for the project next fishing year (starting May 1, 2015). “Throughout this project, the team has coordinated with NMFS, and is helping shape future policies regarding how fisheries are monitored,” said Jessica Gribbon Joyce, program manager at GMRI. “The goal is to design a project in 2015 that will support the implementation of an operational EM program in 2016, where cameras can be used as an alternative to at-sea monitors.”

“The fishermen involved in this project have helped demonstrate that EM is an effective tool for collecting critical information on catch and discards in our fisheries,” said Geoffrey Smith, marine program director at The Nature Conservancy in Maine. "We look forward to working with NMFS and our project partners in the coming year to ensure that this promising technology is approved for implementation in 2016.” This is one year earlier than the industry-wide implementation date of May 2017 that NMFS announced in June 2014 at a New England Fisheries Council meeting in Portland, Maine.

At the time of the release, Ecotrust Canada and GMRI are installing new systems and upgrading the existing systems on nine boats for the third year of the project starting on May 1, 2015.