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Understanding the Role of Data in Fisheries Management

Nov 3, 2014
Fall 2014

From catch and landings data to ecological data, many different sources of information inform our understanding of how we manage fish stocks. This issue marks the beginning of a new multi-part series examining the role of data in fisheries management. 

Data is essential for ensuring the successful management and sustainability of our fisheries, and is used to deliver stock assessments, set catch quotas, and inform policy decisions. Fishery dependent data is collected from fishermen and dealers, and provides managers with a range of catch and effort information including fishing location, gear type, landings, discards, ex-vessel price, and catch sampling data.

The mechanics behind a fishery dependent data collection and management system are remarkably complex, and as a result of evolving fishery management plans and changing regulations, the current system needs to be updated to account for these changes. In response, NOAA Fisheries’ data modernization initiative is exploring ways to improve data quality, timeliness, and delivery. In this issue we take an in-depth look at the role fishery dependent data plays in the regulatory process, particularly from the perspective of reporting and monitoring and how alternative technologies have the potential to make the system more efficient in the future.


A comprehensive reporting system is a vital part of a fishery dependent data collection system. Vessel-level reporting provides high resolution data to scientists and regulators, who can then use it to update catch allocations, evaluate the performance of the fishery, and incorporate into stock assessments.

Currently in the Northeast, a vessel is required to submit several reports before, during, and after a fishing trip. Prior to departing a captain will send a trip start hail via the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), informing NMFS of his intention to fish, and when he estimates he’ll be back to port (at this point an observer may or may not be assigned). During fishing activity, the VMS will report the vessel's position every hour for compliance (closed areas, offshore/inshore, etc.) purposes. After the trip, when the vessel has returned to port, the captain must submit a Vessel Trip Report (VTR). This report reflects a total summary of the day's activity, and includes an overview of the trip's catch, and the rough location where the captain was fishing.

In an effort to streamline some of these reporting steps, a number of options have become available for captains. Computer programs for automating the start/end hails have gained traction, and recently programs have become available that allow a captain to fill out and submit a VTR electronically. These programs simplify things by maintaining a set of pre-filled defaults (vessel name, permit number, etc.) and only prompt for new information. As the reporting and transmission technology continues to improve, so will the efficiency and accuracy of the data.

At-Sea Monitoring

Monitoring provides key pieces of fishery dependent data for scientists and managers. At-sea observers are a commonly used monitoring method for recording biological data and information on fishing activity. Although observers can provide robust scientific data, they are often costly, bringing many logistical constraints. In response to these shortfalls, alternative technology-based approaches, such as electronic monitoring (EM) are being explored as alternatives to be used in conjunction with or to fully replace observers.

EM programs are comprised of an integrated system of video cameras, gear sensors, and GPS used to record fishing activity that is comparable to an onboard human observer. They have proven successful in areas such as British Columbia’s groundfish fishery, but vary according to specific data needs and science and management objectives in a given region. In New England’s groundfish fishery, new efforts are underway to bring EM to the region, including various implementation projects along with the New England Fishery Management Council’s EM Working Group. All are working towards furthering its operationalization in preparation for regulation approval.

Building a more efficient and integrated fishery dependent data system requires thinking across a range of users and uses. A better understanding of data collection, reporting, and use can help identify opportunities for improving data systems. While monitoring and reporting are just two pieces of a larger data systems puzzle, they offer opportunities to develop new technologies that can help streamline data collection systems in the future.