by Ed Lallo/Gulf Seafood News Editor
Fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico, be they commercial, charter-for-hire or recreational, all agree on one fact: the growing need for more timely and accurate data for fishery management and science. Recognizing the need for more timely data collection, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed an implementation plan to expand the use of both electronic monitoring and electronic reporting.
According to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the need for electronic monitoring (EM)/electronic reporting (ER) has been made more urgent by clearly identified problems and management challenges, such as short fishing seasons. For example, data is often reported days after fishing takes place. There is also a need to validate reported catch with actual landed catch. These problems, and many more, are being addressed through a pilot study in the Gulf of Mexico this year.
“Improved data collection is something that fisherman and fishery managers in the Gulf have been working on for more than ten years,” said Michael Kelly, Director of Business Development at CLS America and a Board member of the Gulf Seafood Institute. “Now, after years of talking, of studies, and delays, progress is being made. New electronic data collection gear is being installed on a large percentage of charter vessels in the Gulf.”
The newly installed equipment referenced by Kelly allows Gulf charter-for-hire captains to electronically report their catch in real time. Fishery managers, enforcement personnel and scientists will have the ability to see exactly what fish are being removed from the Gulf. “The purpose of the program is to remove the guesswork,” said Kelly. “Real data. Captains have said that improvements had to be made in timely and accurate data collection. Hopefully there will be no more wild guesses about how much fish has been harvested by this sector and no more phone survey estimations. “
Gulf Fisheries Economically Vital
Gulf of Mexico fisheries support millions of jobs and are economically vital to coastal communities throughout the Gulf of Mexico. However, without effective and timely data collection, these benefits are not being fully realized.
“I think data is the foundation on which all the best science and all the best management decisions are made. It is crucial for success.” Dr. Bonnie Ponwith, Science and Research Director of the NMFS Southeast Fisheries Science Center, told Gulf Seafood News. “There is a rightful concern about the quality of data currently going into fishery management.”
Ponwith believes everyone needs to work together to make data collection improvements. Investments in a variety of different kinds of data being collected are also of vital importance.
Currently, NMFS is using very defined electronic monitoring and electronic data collection to learn what is happening in subsets of specific fisheries to reflect what is happening in the whole population.
“Electronic monitoring and data collection is essential, but in addition, a strong validation program is needed to increase the quality of data,” she said. “If NOAA is to establish an electronic recoding program it would be across all species caught.”
The volunteer charter-for-hire data collection program currently set to begin in March already meets NOAA’s goal for inclusion of all species caught. The tablet computers being issued to captains include forms that reflect all of the species being caught by recreational fishermen in the Gulf.
“Everything gets counted,” said Kelly, whose company designed the program and is furnishing the equipment at no cost to Gulf captains. “The form was developed with the assistance of both NOAA and charter-for-hire captains. We have had input from captains from the very beginning on the program and the equipment. Building them into the process helps ensure that the project will be successful down the road.
The beauty of this new tablet is how quick and easy it is to operate, according to Kelly. “We have what we call the ‘swipe and submit’ form. It is usually a couple of minutes to click the boxes, add a value for the number of fish caught and submit. The data is transmitted and the captain is done,” he explained.
NMFS EM/ER Plan
In 2015, the NMFS Southeast Region released an electronic monitoring and reporting implantation plan providing information about the agency’s objectives moving forward.
What kind of technology will be important in the coming years? According to Ponwith, advances in communications must lead the way for electronic monitoring.
“We are currently using an electronic monitoring system for a Gulf of Mexico shrimp study allowing data to be transmitted from the vessel via cellular technology. It is reliable and affordable, some things that are important criteria,” said the Miami based research leader. “Advances in satellite technology and the hardware that can link up to these communication tools are also essential.”
From a NMFS management perspective, in terms of technology, much is contingent upon the organization’s management objectives during upcoming years. Moving forward, key technology objectives must be met.
“There is a need for accurate data and timely response rates,” said Andy Strelcheck, Deputy Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries Service. “We have to ask what types of technology might provide the most accurate and timely submission of data, as well as have the ability to collect and validate that data.”
“We are an active partner working with CLS American on the current Gulf charter-for hire project,” he said “We also have an ongoing project to develop and test a VMS-based electronic logbook system on some Gulf headboats that participated in the Headboat Collaborative Program the past two years. We are supportive of testing these technologies, and weighing the effectiveness of not only the hardware and software, but also the methodologies for validating the data as it is submitted. We are interested in knowing how well they can produce statistical estimates, and in what time frame can they be produced.”
For the new charter-for-hire electronic monitoring program, collected data will be transmitted to a central database where it is processed then delivered to NOAA’s NMFS Enterprise Data Management (EDM) Program. At the same time state fishery managers can also access the NOAA site. The secure online portal is protected so unauthorized parties cannot see the data stream, ensuring captains’ privacy.
Once fish are caught and information transmitted, federal and state authorities can send samplers out to the dock to verify the catch reports. In the past, the Marine Recreational Information Program has used that data to estimate what larger fleet catches have been.
Business Tool for Captains
“Captains participating in the program can log on at any time and see their data up to the minute,” explained Kelly about the equipment being installed on up to 275 Gulf for-hire vessels. “Fishing positions, catch information and all catch reports are available to individual captains via a secure, online account. Captains can go back and see what they caught last week, last month, even last year, it is a great business tool.”
Charter captains will also be able to correlate oceanographic information with their catch reports to see where catches were made in relationship to sea surface temperatures, ocean color or other factors.
For the new charter boat data collection program, compliance is going to be very important for shifting the sample program to a more complete census program.
One of the challenges it faces will be timeliness in reporting.
“Our team estimates that they spend 20-30 percent of their time chasing down reports that come in late. This cuts down on time needed to develop timely analysis and procedures, and it also cuts down on the gains we may have had in the timeliness of the data forcing us to estimate what was actually landed,” Ponwith explained. “The majority of the headboat fleet, which has had a mandatory electronic reporting program for the past two years, does submit on time; however it takes a fair amount of follow up for those who do not.”
The new charter-for-hire electronic program hopefully will eliminate wasted hours by researchers because data will be transmitted before the vessel even reaches dock.
“When a captain pushes that send button, that data becomes instantly available to NOAA for analysis,” said Kelly. “In addition, by sending information while on the water, dockside validation will be made possible.”
Ponwith said that a subset of those returning vessels would be intercepted by a dockside sampler to observe the catch and validate the information was electronically reported. “This gives us a method to correct any reporting error that might have taken place. It will also allow for biological samples (length, weight, age) to be taken,” she said.
The new program will not completely eliminate every problem, according to Strelcheck. “There are always going to be some system failures, network outages, as well as fishermen forgetting to submit reports because they get busy,” he said.
“The higher the rate of timely reporting, the less these issues have to be addressed and the closer the estimates will be to real time,” said the NOAA administrator. “ It definitely helps to have those submissions on a trip by trip basis prior to hitting the dock, rather than the weekly reporting we currently have with the headboat program. It will allow us the opportunity to monitor the information on a real time basis.”
The first training for charter boat captains participating in the voluntary electronic data collection program will start the end of February, with the first site being Orange Beach. The second training site will be in the Clearwater area the first or second week of March, and then Panama City area shortly after that. Reporting will begin immediately. At the end of the two-year program, all of the equipment becomes the property of the captain.
“The equipment will stay on the boat if the captain decides he would like to continue to use it. We have tried to build in as many incentives as possible for the captains to continue to participate in the program,” said Kelly. “We want this to become a device that becomes an integral part of their business. From here forth we will have real data on how many fish are being caught right now, and how many can be counted at the dock.”