Washington, DC — Despite years of planning and numerous studies, transition to electronic monitoring systems for tracking fishing fleet compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and other marine regulation remains elusive, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Undiminished uncertainty over a host of fundamental questions jeopardizes announced plans by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to approve electronic monitoring systems for deployment on fishing fleets in 2014.
Currently, fishing fleet compliance with NOAA-administered rules is monitored by cadres of fisheries observers. Heightened “accountability” requirements imposed on fleets will increase the number and scope of observer coverage, leading to industry lobbying for cheaper alternatives. NOAA has embraced reliance on cameras as well as other “electronic technologies” such as e-logs for “fishery-dependent data collection programs,” according to a May 2013 NOAA Policy Directive. NOAA pledges to have completed “by the end of calendar year 2014 a schedule of where and how to adopt appropriate electronic technologies, if any, for all fishery management plans.”
This ambitious schedule reflects mounting industry frustration, as one commercial association official emailed earlier this year “They’ve had these cameras onboard for years and yet there’s no clear path to implementation… Fishermen and staff are extremely disappointed with the lack of progress.” [Emphasis in original] Yet NOAA documents obtained by PEER outline a slew of unsolved knotty points, including:
- Performance Standards. Some video systems do not record enough detail to reliably identify different fish species, a critical drawback. Others are obscured by as little as a single water droplet on the lens, making them useless in stormy seas;
- Cost Savings. Steps required to increase reliability would eliminate cost savings, the prime motivating factor for going electronic. In addition, electronic systems produce mountains of images or other data which must be reviewed, presumably by humans;
- Who Pays? It is still not decided who will fund system purchase and maintenance. NOAA’s budgetary prospects are cloudy while there is little appetite for an industry surtax; and
- Enforcement Problems. Electronic systems pose chain-of-custody issues which can undermine prosecutions. Industry control of the equipment used to incriminate itself poses other problems.
“Cost-effective electronic systems that meet both regulatory and scientific demands are nowhere near deployment,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that this year NOAA issued a series of “White Papers” cataloging an array of obstacles and options but providing no definitive guidance. “Grafting 21st century technology onto the decks of an 18th century industry is no simple task.”
At the same time, NOAA has vowed to adopt a number of reforms by the end of 2013 to address safety and enforcement concerns raised by fisheries observers. If implemented, these reforms will give individual observers greater autonomy and may further increase industry pressure to replace them.
“NOAA has spent far more time and money trying to automate observer functions than it has making the observer system work better,” Ruch added, noting a recent NOAA report conceding the need to improve communication with observers who work for private companies under contract to the agency. “NOAA should resist the temptation to mechanize the messenger in order to drown the sound of bad news.”