By Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
The Gulf charter-for-hire fleet is making yet another leap towards greater accountability as nearly 200 charter-for-hire boats become equipped with electronic data collection systems that will allow for accurate and real time data on red snapper and other critically important recreational species.
Last year, Congress made funding available to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) for a new electronic data collection program in the federally permitted charter-for-hire fleet in the Gulf of Mexico. Earlier this year, NFWF granted Maryland-based satellite technology firm CLS America, Inc. the funds to administer this groundbreaking program. CLS America has since partnered with the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) and is now installing equipment on more than 175 boats in three Gulf states: Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
The ambitious program has a goal of installing more than 275 electronic logbook (ELB)/vessel-monitoring systems (VMS) on charter vessels home-ported in the three eastern Gulf states. The program has good representation in Mississippi and Alabama, with slots still available in Florida. All participants in the program are volunteers. Gulf head boats are not participating in this program.
Thorium units provided by CLS America are comprised of a junction box, small antenna, wiring and tablet computer. The antenna and junction box weigh approximately two pounds and fit comfortably in one hand, allowing for installation on any size vessel. The units, which have a retail value of approximately $2500, are provided and installed free of charge.
The privacy of the data collected by Thorium is assured through the entire system. The on-board equipment sends the data via an encrypted satellite link to the Iridium gateway. It is then transmitted to the CLS Iridium Processing Center (IPC) via a secure link.
The IPC is isolated from any external Internet traffic. The only access from the public Internet to the IPC is from the MyData portal or the Iridium Web Service (IWS). Users must authenticate to both MyData and IWS using a CLS-issued username/password combination. Captains accessing MyData, or the IWS, can only access information from Thorium units that they “own” or those they have been granted access.
According to Chris Estes, the Director of CLS America’s Technical Group’s Department of Information, “Upon request, data can be transmitted directly from the IPC to a customer or authorized consumer of the data. This can be done via email, FTP or SFTP; but CLS recommends that the SFTP protocol be used, as it is encrypted.”
Following passage of the federal Appropriations Act that included the initial $2 million for the electronic data collection program, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran told Gulf Seafood News, “It simply makes sense to use modern technology to obtain more accurate assessments of our fisheries. Better data will allow policymakers, as well as those who rely on and enjoy Gulf fishing, to make better decisions about the management and conservation of fishery resources.”
Orange Beach First Install
CLS America technicians have installed the new monitoring equipment on more than 80 boats in the Orange Beach region of Alabama so far. During December, the team will move south to start installs along the Florida coast, beginning with Destin.
“We meet the captain and do an assessment of the boat,” said Gary Mogan, CLS America Hardware Manager, who is heading the install team. “We work closely with the captains to get their ideas on dome and junction box placement and how the wiring should be strung. We then go over all the paperwork so they completely understand all aspects of the volunteer program.”
The CLS team sets approximately two appointments a day, with the install taking between three to six hours depending upon the difficulty of routing cable. Once the dome and junction box are installed and cable strung, technicians check that the system is integrated into the power of the rest of the boat according to the captain’s wishes.
“Perhaps the biggest question a captain has to face is how the unit is to be powered,” said Distraction Charter’s Captain Troy Frady of Orange Beach. “The options are to connect directly to the battery, or a separate electronic power source. I decided to have my unit connected to a 12-volt power box so the unit has continuous power. It is to everyone’s advantage to be there with the installer during the process.”
Frady was very impressed with the speed and efficiency of CLS’s install team, as well as their willingness to please during the process. “I was pleasantly surprised to see how compact the electronic log book is and to find out how simple the blue tooth tablet-based system is to operate,” he said.
The system has three significant buttons: e-mail, weather and forms. To record his catch, a captain must go to forms and select the program’s option. Next, he simply answers each question as it appears on the screen. Before finishing, a captain is given the opportunity to review all answers a final time before hitting “submit” and the information is transmitted out via satellite to the collection point.
The equipment comes with a one-year warrantee and, upon completion of the program, it becomes property of the captains.
“The equipment we are installing is incredibly reliable, with a low, very low annual failure rate,” explained Morgan about the install. “Captains that are completely unfamiliar with the equipment can learn the system within 15 minutes and we really appreciate their involvement.”
Zeke’s All In
Located ten-minutes from the Gulf on Cotton Bayou in Orange Beach, Zeke’s Landing is home to the Gulf Coast’s largest charter boat fishing fleet. The 32 federally permitted boats it docks are all participating in the first-of-its-kind program.
“Every charter boat at Zeke’s has signed up for the VMS logbook program,” said Tom Steber, Zeke’s General Manager and President of the Alabama Charter Fishing Association. “The installation is going great. So far more than 80 out of the 92 vessels in Alabama have had the equipment installed. Now we are just waiting for the Spring to get here, so we can fish.”
According to Steber, the overall goal of the program is for federally permitted charter-for-hire vessels that “fish for a living” to become leaders in accountability.
“We hope the long range goal of the program will allow Gulf charter fleet captains the ability to start fishing when their business dictates rather than when someone else says the boat can fish, in other words a real business plan,” said Steber. “We will be electronically turning in every fish caught, kept or released, to be verified by state and federal fisheries management. Our trips are documented by using VMS, proving if the vessel left the dock or not and duration of the trip.”
GSI is participating in the program by coordinating captains and vessels, as well as providing media relations and continuous information on the program via the Gulf Seafood Newsroom. The organization will also facilitate meetings to ensure proper training, transparency and information to all participants.
“We act as the link between the captains and the program managers at CLS America,” said Bob Gill, GSI’s Florida Board Member who is in charge of the organization’s project coordination. “ We are working closely with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) scientists on proper data collection. How the data is collected and its validity is important to obtain certification for use in future stock assessment processes.”
According to Gill, captains will have access to their data within days of submission on a website set up as a portal for use of the database that will result from the program. Statisticians and scientists will also have access to the data for analysis and confirmation of its validity.
“Tracking and information collected and stored in the digital database are only accessible by the fishermen, no one else can look at your information,” said Captain Mike Colby of Clearwater, FL. “The CLS America system is similar to the system currently used successfully by commercial fishermen for almost a decade with no hacks or breech of data. Tracking and information is stored in a digital archive, not web-based, and requires two passwords to activate. No other fishermen can look at your data.”
Captains participating in the project will attend a training seminar. They will be responsible for consistently submitting trip reports with catch and discard data prior to the return to the dock, as well as a $69 monthly satellite fee. A dockside intercept may also be required as part of the data validation program.
“CLS America in the final process of installing the catch forms on tablets that will be furnished to participants,” said Morgan. “The tablets will be given to captains starting in mid-January during training sessions to be held at various locations in the three participating states.”
Fisherman participating in other VMS fisheries can use this equipment for their reports, eliminating and upgrading existing VMS systems to save money.
Installations are a little behind because of rain and bad weather. Installers are compensated by the install, not on an hourly basis, so it is important captains show at their appointed time.
“I appreciate the extra effort by the install crew to make sure everything was done to my satisfaction,” said Captain Frady. “Everybody is excited about wanting to do our part to ensure that the electronic logbook and data collection system operates as efficiently as it can so Gulf red snapper will be available to everyone during future generations.”