Cameras to remedy observer problems in Alaska?

Smaller boats in Alaska’s offshore fisheries may no longer have to carry human observers in the future, if a plan to deploy cameras proves feasible.

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At its Sitka meeting this month, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council gave the green light to an inter-agency effort to develop Electronic Monitoring. The council would like to see cameras in action within three years.

Although the headline news out of the council’s contentious June meeting focused on bycatch, there wouldn’t even be a bycatch debate without human observers.

Bycatch is what you get when you’re trying to catch something else. Halibut or chinook when you’re trawling for pollock; rockfish when you’re longlining for halibut.

Year-round, observers fly to Alaska’s remote ports, board fishing boats, and go out on trips. They monitor the bycatch, sample the harvest, and collect the reams of data needed by organizations like theNorth Pacific Fishery Management Councilto sustainably operate commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The EM cameras on the Magia, Steven Rhoads’ 55-foot longliner, are mounted on an outrigger boom. “I would pay to have electronic monitoring every day, rather than be selected to carry a human observer,” Rhoads told the council. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)
The EM cameras on the Magia, Steven Rhoads’ 55-foot longliner, are mounted on an outrigger boom. “I would pay to have electronic monitoring every day, rather than be selected to carry a human observer,” Rhoads told the council. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Expenses for the program top $4-million a year, with about one-quarter of that funding coming from the federal government, and the other three-quarters from fees collected from the fishermen, who also have to feed and house the observers while they’re on board.

On a big boat with a large crew, like a factory trawler, an extra person isn’t necessarily a big deal. These ships may carry an observer every single voyage. On small boats, that extra person can be a bit of a wild card.

“Our observer was on board. And our observer was seasick for about half the days. Conditions were cramped, and I got to sleep on the galley table,” said Steven Rhoads, who owns a 55-foot longliner based in Sitka. Rhoads explained to the council why he’s one of over a hundred boat-owners in this size range who ask for exemptions when they’re randomly selected to carry an observer.

“The observing was not approaching anything I would call complete. It greatly disrupted our regular fishing functions.”

This so-called “observer effect” is a concern. If fishing trips are miserable with an extra person on board, or if boats manipulate their normal fishing patterns in order to return to port sooner and shed their observers — how does it affect the quality of the data?

Recently the council authorized a research program to test electronic monitoring, and Rhoads was one of eleven boat owners to volunteer to have cameras installed on his deck.

“This year every trip, every set, every haul, every hook was observed. It is a wonderful alternative.”

Aboard the TammyLin in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor…

Hi, George? Robert.

Another one of those volunteers was George Eliason. I visited him aboard his 50-foot longliner in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. The TammyLin has six bunks.

“My boat’s big enough that there’d be plenty of room for an observer. I don’t think we’d do anything differently than we do now. I don’t think I would have a problem with that person, unless we have a conflict in personalities. That always happens.”

But Eliason has not had to test his patience with a human observer. Because he’s got room for only four people in his life raft, he’s successfully applied for an observer exemption. Instead, he’s had cameras on the Tammylin for two years running.

“This wire here goes over to the hauler. Soon as the hauler turns on, it starts the cameras up. Two (seconds) after the hauler goes off, the cameras go off.”

Eliason says he was worried at first that the cameras might catch him in a mistake, throwing fish overboard that he ought to have kept. Unlike gulf trawlers, who are prohibited from keeping some species aboard, longliners like Eliason bring their bycatch back to port and sell it. It’s species like yelloweye and demersal shelf rockfish — but if they catch too much it can restrict their ability to target halibut in some areas.

Eliason’s fears did not come to pass.

“After the person looked at the videos, they said that they could tell what each species was, because what they saw is what they’re going to get.”

Unlike salmon, bottom fish species are managed in weight, and not quantity. Accurately converting the video image of fish into weight remains one of the biggest challenges to be solved by electronic monitoring. But the upside is so compelling: Removing human observers from boats — of all sizes — reduces an element of risk, both for the crew and for the observer. Those “personality conflicts” Eliason mentioned can escalate to abuse — even assault — in the high stakes world of commercial fishing.

Why not just work out the bugs in electronic monitoring, and go for it?

“It’s a challenge. Because federal funds are tight.”

Chris Rilling manages the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program. Because of problems with federal funding, he’s scraping bottom just to pay for the human observer program.

So, organizations like the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka are finding money on their own. Just this month they received nearly $500,000 out of a total of $3-million awarded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to develop electronic monitoring. The funding will put cameras on 120 boats in Sitka, Homer, Seward and other ports.

All the boats receiving the equipment will be in the 40- to 57-and-a-half foot range, the so-called small boat fleet. But Rilling doesn’t rule out the possibility that electronic monitoring will have applications in bigger classes.

“There are a lot of promising applications for EM technology, whether it be accounting for halibut discard on some of the larger vessels, compliance monitoring for retention of species in some of the trawl fisheries, and for catch accounting on some of the smaller boats. There are a variety of ways we could use the technology and we’re exploring all of those.”

The council voted unanimously in Sitka to move forward with a pre-implementation design this year, with the hope that electronic monitoring could be integrated into the management of the small-boat fleet by 2018 — when it then could be subsidized by observer fees.

At Crescent Harbor…

Back on the TammyLin, George Eliason has mixed feelings. He believes electronic monitoring is an important goal, but that doesn’t mean he’s fine with it.

“It’s not fine to any one of us. It’s a direct intrusion on our liberties. Nobody likes it, but nobody sees a way out of it.”

Relatively speaking, Eliason and skippers like him are a small part of the bycatch problem in the Gulf. But if electronic monitoring becomes viable, they’re hoping to play a big part in the solution.