BOSTON — New England’s already strapped fishing fleet has a major new expense bearing down on it — paying for human monitors to track the fish that are hauled on deck or tossed over. That is, unless researchers can figure out how to replace those humans with cheaper electronic eyes.
A federally funded pilot project is testing a system at sea that could record the catch, and even figure out what it weighs, relying largely on closed-circuit cameras on board.
The system wouldn’t completely replace the flesh-and-blood observers fishermen are periodically required to take to sea. But a primary aim is to reduce the need for them and save fishermen money, said Nichole Rossi, the project’s lead.
Some fishermen are skeptical a camera system can be accurate or less expensive than a person on board. Others don’t like the observer program at all, considering it intrusive and a sign of how little regulators trust them.
There is agreement that the industry needs to find a way to avoid what could be crushing costs.
“It’s going to be another nail in the coffin, maybe the last one,” said Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman.
The on-board observers are employed by government-approved private contractors and have worked in the fishery for years doing various jobs, including monitoring the accidental catch of protected mammals, such harbor porpoises. They also take samples used to estimate fish populations.
But more observers were needed to ride with the region’s fishermen after a switch to a new system for regulating their catch.
The new regulations see most fishermen working together in “sectors” to divide an allotted catch of groundfish, such as haddock, cod and flounder. The fishermen are under strict limits on how much of they can catch and how many unmarketable fish they can throw overboard.
If fishermen exceed a limit on one species, the fleet must stop fishing on all species, making it crucial to better track what fishermen are catching. So fishery regulators expanded the number of observers working the groundfishing fleet and they’re now required on 38 percent of all groundfish trips.
The government tried to ease the switch to the new system by agreeing to pay all observer expenses for the first two years at a cost of $8.8 million. But starting in the 2012 fishing year, fishermen will have to bear a big part of those costs by paying to take the observers to sea at a cost of about $600 a day, on average.
The expense would hit the smallest boats hardest. According to federal statistics, it’s half of the $1,200 in revenues that groundfish vessels measuring less than 30 feet long averaged in 2010. Gloucester fishermen Bill Skrobacz said on some days the observer on his 31-foot vessel would make far more than a crewman.
“It’s a ridiculous expense,” he said. “What should I do, give the crew a bill every day?”
An electronic monitoring system itself costs about $8,000-$10,000. Other expenses, such as analyzing the images, aren’t yet known. But it could ultimately be a much cheaper option.
The system, similar to those that have worked in Canada and Australia, includes up to four cameras pointed in areas on board where fish are handled, sorted, brought on board or tossed over. The cameras don’t record voices and are activated by motions on deck specific to fishing work, such as movement by the drum that fishing gear rolls over.
Eighteen months into the 54-month pilot project, the system has shown strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, it’s tough to tell apart similar-looking species that may have different catch limits — such as summer and winter flounder — just by analyzing the film.
Researchers also haven’t developed a way to accurately estimate a fish’s weight, based solely on what’s seen on film. But Rossi says it’s possible, using visible measures such as the length of the fish or the volume of the onboard containers that are filled with fish.
Early testing shows the electronic system can accurately “see” the catch on vessels that use long lines and hooks or stationary nets, called gillnets. On those boats, the fish are handled or removed from the net individually and can be clearly viewed by the cameras, Rossi said.
The cameras, though, struggle to track fish caught by trawlers, which drag nets behind them in the most common groundfishing method used in New England. The fish are deposited on deck at once and the cameras can’t individually pick them out. Crewmen could conceivably raise each fish to the cameras, but that would be far too burdensome, said Jackie Odell of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group.
“[Electronic monitoring] is definitely a solution,” she said. “Who it will work for is much more limited at this point.”
Skrobacz, who volunteered to test the system on his boat, said he has no doubt the cameras can work on boats that use gillnets, like his. He said he found the cameras less intrusive than another having another person on board. But he added it’s an invasion of privacy, either way.
Sherman said he prefers human observers because he knows they’re accurately counting what he tosses overboard. He just can’t afford them. He adds that he resents having to pay for a monitoring program “to prove I’m not a thief.”
Amy Van Atten, who runs the Northeast fisheries observer program, said the program isn’t about mistrust of fishermen, but about getting the accurate catch information fishermen don’t have time to collect because they’re busy doing their jobs. The hope is that job gets cheaper with the electronic monitoring, she said.
In the long term, the monitoring program can prove that it’s worth the money, Van Atten said. She said that the more uncertain regulators are about what fishermen are catching, the tighter they set limits to ensure they’re protecting fish species. But better information from observers, human or electronic, can give regulators confidence to allow fishermen to catch more, she said.
“The better data you have, the more on target you can be,” Van Atten said.