Small fixed gear vessels can now officially join pool for electronic monitoring

One of the cameras on board Frank Miles’ vessel. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

More and more commercial fishing vessels are using cameras for catch accounting. The cameras record activity that human reviewers then look over and analyze later.

Starting in January, electronic monitoring, or EM, became an official option for small fixed gear vessels in the North Pacific Observer Program.

KMXT looked into what that means and where electronic monitoring could go from here.


Longliner and pot cod fisherman Frank Miles stands on the deck of his 58-foot vessel, the Sumner Strait, and points out the four different cameras on board.

Frank Miles in his vessel, the Sumner Strait. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

He says he signed up when the program was first reaching out to vessels to volunteer for EM.

“A lot of guys kinda pooh-pooh the whole idea of big brother kinda looking down on us, but we do not find it in the least bit intrusive at all. It just gives the scientific component of our industry an opportunity to use fair numbers and apply that to good, sound management, and we’re all on board with this.”

He doesn’t take issue with the monitoring aspect, but says EM is an improvement in method.

In 2013, the National Marine Fisheries Service revamped the observer program to reflect more thorough coverage of the groundfish fisheries.  It branched out to include vessels harvesting halibut and those under 60 feet.

Miles says carrying another person can take up space and resources on a small boat like his. It can also shift the crew’s dynamic.

“When we have a manned observer on board, our behavior changes. Because you get a small, demure female who’s the observer, and she wants to measure 100-pound skates, and she’s having my crew drag skates around, which takes them away from their normal activity. So, it’s more of a burden for us.”

That’s partly why electronic monitoring is so appealing to smaller boats.

This year, 141 fixed gear vessels out of 600 in the observer program selection pool have signed up for EM. Sixty-nine are new to the program.

While this is the first year EM is an official option, it isn’t necessarily a big change for the fishermen who’ve signed up since NIMFS and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council started experimenting with EM a few years ago.

Council member Bill Tweight, who also chairs the council’s Observer Advisory Committee and Electronic Monitoring Work group, says they designed the program so that it would be a gradual transition from a prototype into a rule.

Their use of technology has changed a lot.

Tweight says, this year, managers started fully integrating the camera data into catch accounting.

“It took us a couple of years just to get the bugs out of that part of the program as well as working through the logistical issues that you encounter when you put cameras on boats.”

As much as the technology’s capability has grown, Tweit says there’s room for advancement.

“We’re still looking for systems that will help us measure the fish so we have a sense of how big they are so we have a better sense of the biomass as well as ultimately we’d love to have it so that the camera itself identifies the fish.”

It’s an evolving program.

The council is also looking to expand EM to different parts of the industry. They’ll investigate methods for counting salmon bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska rockfish fishery, for example.

Julie Bonney with the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, a member association for trawl participants, says they’ll look at EM as one way to keep track of Chinook salmon bycatch in Kodiak processing plants.

“Then you’d be using the EM to monitor that they’re counting it properly and use that kind of as an audit function, so it’d be self-reported processor fish ticket counts for salmon that would affect catch accounting, but then you would audit that through electronic monitoring.”

She says they received a Saltonstall-Kennedy grant for the two-year project.

The EM program is also grant-funded right now, but in 2019, that cost will transfer to vessels and processors through fees, which is how manned observers are currently funded.

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