Getting electronic monitoring systems aboard more Alaska fishing boats is a goal the industry has pushed for years.
Starting next year, EMS can officially replace human observers as data collectors to track what’s coming and going over the rails. After years of agency and industry collaborations, the rules for the EMS program were published last week in the Federal Register, moving it closer to law.
“There’s smaller and then small – previously the observer requirement only applied to vessels 59 foot or larger. When we instituted the restructured observer program we expanded that down to 40 feet. And those vessels have had a hard time accommodating human observers so we really have been focused on that part. When we implemented the new program we excluded all vessels under 40 feet for another period of time while we worked on the intermediate vessels.”
Bill Tweit is vice-chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council which oversees the observer program. Boats under 40 feet have so far been exempted from coverage; Tweit says the new rules don’t apply to them yet.
“Probably what we will do is work hard over the next couple of years, and it is one of our priorities right now, to develop EM as one alternative, so when we do pick up those vessels smaller than 40 they will have a choice right out of the gate about whether a human observer or some form of EM. But we also are trying to figure out how much data we need to collect from those smaller than 40 footers. “
Operators who do not volunteer for EMS remain subject to observer coverage on randomly selected portions of their fishing trips. EMS, instead of the human option, is open to two types of fishing gear.
“We’ve really focused on this one on longline and pots. We haven’t focused on jig yet and most of them are under 40 as well.”
Well over a hundred Alaska boats have helped test EMS out on the fishing grounds for years. The system, which costs about $3,500 for hardware and installation, uses cameras and sensors to record fishing activities.
They have been proven to track and identify nearly all catch and bycatch species required for fishery management decisions.
Another huge plus: EMS can reduce observer costs to a few hundred dollars, instead of thousands per day.
The public has 60 days to comment on the EMS rules. Bill Tweit:
“First off we want to hear how well we did at tailoring this and then secondly we want to hear what their next priorities are.”
Hearings on EMS are set for this week in Kodiak and elsewhere in April.