NOAA Says ‘No Way’ To Electronic Monitoring For Two Years

After refusing to implement an electronic monitoring program developed by fishermen, NOAA Fisheries is moving forward with a plan of its own to test cameras on boats this spring.

But a top official who met with Sitka fishermen last week said too many questions remain about the system, and there’s no way a functional electronic monitoring program could be ready in the next two years.

The monitoring of bottom fishing that takes place in federal waters off Alaska’s coastline has come into the spotlight recently, because hook-and-line and pot-gear fishermen who operate relatively small boats – from 40- to 57-and-a-half feet – may be selected to carry human observers. Basically, a technician who counts and weighs some of the fish that come over the rail, and takes tissue samples.

Observers are – and have been for decades – an important tool for determining bycatch, the amount of fish caught unintentionally, in the traditionally large-boat fisheries.

Martin Loefflad, the director of NOAA’s Observer program in Seattle, told a roomful of about 45 Sitka halibut and blackcod fishermen that the goal was “to assess everything that came out of the ocean.”

No one in the room disputed this goal, but getting there remains a problem, especially in a boat that may be no longer than a couple of large pickup trucks parked end-to-end.

Loefflad said he began his career in the late 1970s as an observer on the foreign fleet. He said electronic monitoring – cameras – were not going to replace human observers anytime soon.

“I think think the way to phrase it from my desk is that we’ll develop it as a tool to be used to some degree in the fisheries management process. I think it’s unrealistic from my desk to think we’ll ever take an otolith out of a fish. That’s something we do.”

An otolith is an earbone, used to determine the age of species. But Loefflad conceded that electronic monitoring one day could be very useful in determining the location and time of fishing, the number of fish, and the composition of the catch, and possibly its weight.

“An awful lot of what we do is managed by weight, not by number of fish. So the weight is a key consideration.”

Speaking from the audience, Linda Behnken, the director of the Alaska Longline Fisherman’s Association, noted that 90-percent of the catch was landed at on-shore processors, where this data could be easily collected. Loefflad suggested that was inadequate.

“If there are some beasts that never make it to the dock, the only way to get those beasts is on the boat.”

He went on to say that there was potential for cameras to have a primary role, with human observers in a secondary role, supplementing that information.

Loefflad said NOAA planned to spend about $200,000 testing electronic monitoring on volunteer boats this season. Besides scientific data, he said there are other details to consider: Who’s obligated to power the system, who’s responsible for keeping it clean and functioning, and could a fishing trip be cut short if the electronic monitoring system failed?

Loefflad said his office planned to get a draft document before the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council by this June, but even if some of these basic questions could be addressed, he “could pretty much guarantee you won’t have regs in place by 2014.”

Beginning this year, halibut fishing boats 57-and-a-half-feet and over will have a 15-percent chance of having one of their trips selected for observer coverage. Boats down to 40 feet will have a smaller chance of selection, but – if selected – they’ll have to carry an observer on every trip for a two-month period.

This amounts to about 1,300 additional boats now subject to observer coverage. Last month, a private cruise line, The Boat Company, filed a legal challenge against the program, arguing that it was diverting observer resources from larger vessels which have a proportionately larger affect on bycatch.

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Robert Woolsey is a reporter at KCAW in Sitka.