Last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released a plan for electric monitoring and reporting in its Southeast fisheries, marking a significant step towards regulatory agencies embracing technology to better protect and manage the environment. The plan’s goal is to provide more timely, accurate, and comprehensive data for fisheries management and science.

Successful fishery management is dependent upon the collection of data from fishing activities. A robust fishery-monitoring program provides data on catch and bycatch to fishery stakeholders, which in turn supports and improves stock assessments and ensures catch limits are both optimized and sustainable in the long term. While observation has traditionally been a necessary component of accurate catch accounting, the associated costs can be a barrier to implementing more comprehensive monitoring programs. While the cost for human observers can range from $430 to more than $1,500 a day, an electronic monitoring system costs between $200 and $300 a day. During a two-year pilot study, electronic monitoring recorded 95% of the hauls and identified 94% of the fish to the species level.

The NMFS plan outlines a six-phase framework for implementing and expanding the use of electronic monitoring and electronic reporting (EM/ER) technologies for federally managed fisheries in the Southeast region. The primary objectives of the plan are to:

  1. Define regional objectives for the use of EM/ER;
  2. Establish a framework for EM/ER development and implementation;
  3. Identify challenges impeding the use of EM/ER in the region and potential solutions for overcoming those challenges;
  4. Develop a prioritized list of fisheries suitable for EM/ER;
  5. Identify and quantify costs and infrastructure needed for expansion of EM/ER use;
  6. Develop a process for reviewing progress made toward plan implementation.

The plan will create more sustainable and cost-effective fishery management practices. Fisheries and aquatic environments will benefit tremendously from this new technology. For example, under the new plan, the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery could benefit from increased oversight on bycatch. Electric monitoring also provides a more cost efficient alternative for documenting sea turtle and sawfish interactions in Southwest Florida.

However, the agency has some concerns regarding widespread adoption of EM/ER, including the cost of implementation and difficulty calibrating with old data collection methods. The industry has also expressed concerns about the compliance burden the plan will impose on fishermen.

This plan is part of a larger movement by environmental agencies to embrace modern technological advances in their monitoring, reporting, and regulating. It is a response to cries from academics, industry, and environmental activists. In 2013, fishermen and industry officials urged House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans, and Insular Affairs to investigate the use of video cameras to help monitor commercial fishing at sea instead of onboard human observers to cut costs and better protect aquatic population. Hopefully, with the new year, we will begin to see other regulatory agencies embrace new technology in a similar manner.

Megan McLean

 

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