Gulf of Mexico, USA — A landmark effort to help improve reef fish management in the Gulf has nearly reached program capacity, with less than two dozen vessel openings left in the Charter-For-Hire data collection project.
Charter captains, the Gulf Council, and stakeholders Gulf-wide have long called for improved data to manage the reef fish complex better. Most years, charter operations are injured by shorter and shorter fishing seasons for many of the Gulf’s most popular species, particularly for triggerfish and amberjack. Federal officials maintain the erratic closures are for the good of overfished stocks; meanwhile, fishermen argue that the season adjustments are more arbitrary than calculated since valid data does not exist.
But a $1.7 million data collection initiative led by the Gulf Seafood Institute (GSI) and technology partner CLS America, Inc. is changing that. Enabling Captains with newly installed satellite technology that wirelessly links to mobile tablets onboard, the program creates a real time database with vessel and catch data. It’s proved so attractive that 230 private-vessel Captains are signed on and only 23 spots remain.
Bob Gill, respected as an effective mediator between federal fishery managers and irritated fishermen and industry during his years on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council, serves as the senior program director for GSI. He calls the first year participation rate “exceptional” and says it shows Captains in the Gulf of Mexico are willing to co-engineer a better fishery when given a clear opportunity to do so.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom had a chance to catch up with Mr. Gill, a Gulf Seafood Institute board member, about the popular pilot program. Here are excerpts from the conversation about how it all started, where it’s headed, and how to secure one of the remaining 23 slots that delivers complimentary technology and equipment that participants consider top of the line.
GSI News: Let’s start from the beginning; what is this Charter Boat Data Collection program all about?
Well, the Gulf Seafood Institute and CLS America have partnered on a first-ever voluntary initiative to create a real-time, electronic logbook program for the Gulf of Mexico’s charter for hire fleet. We’ve opened the charter data collection program to all species in the reef fish complex.
The thing that’s unique about this program is that it’s developing a database for the charter boat industry, by vessel, by trip — data at a level that doesn’t exist. Here the catch is validated, the effort is validated. So participating Captains get an at-the-ready electronic history of their trips, and the data goes into a larger database that may one day help solve this riddle of whether we count fish properly.
The value is felt across the board, particularly by the Captain (or that Captain’s authorized users) who now has a database he can access at anytime. That information used to be accessible only in a paper form log book, if at all, depending on how organized these Captains were.
Gulf Seafood News: Collaboration and data collection don’t always go together in the Gulf. What’s the back story?
Basically, this was started by a segment of the industry with a series of workshops across the Gulf in 2013-2014, and they were polarized on how to move forward. I facilitated those workshops, and one of the things they came together on was the need for a data collection system and everyone agreed it was needed now. It was also clear that it needed to be independent of any management scheme that may or may not occur in the future.
So with a handful of stakeholders, we pushed on to dream up what something like this could look like. About that same time, we were seeing a lot of encouragement from Alabama Senator Richard Shelby and Florida Representative David Jolly, and a lot of conversations just came together quickly — in fact far quicker than we expected. But I think it’s because this started with the industry, conceived by charter captains for charter captains, not in Washington. And the driver was improved data, not money, which I think was also rare in this case.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom: You’re a big picture guy; what’s the big picture here?
This whole project was driven by the big picture — it can confirm or refute assumptions we’ve been making about the science and the data, and help refine the management — which benefits everyone. Let’s look at two of our most recent seasons:
This year, the Gulf of Mexico saw a huge overrun in trigger fish — by 240%. It’s a “payback” fishery so any overages in one season need to be made up the next season. Going over by almost 2.5 times this year means no triggerfish season next year. That’s a big thing for northern Gulf folks. Had we observed that catch rate earlier in the charter fleet, we could have had the opportunity to shut down the fishery and still have a season next year.
Similarly with Amberjack: It was set up for a split season and it overran enough that they could not open it up in the fall. That totally ruins the charter Captain business models, and now they have to rethink their season. It’s very disruptive, and having real time data will help minimize that chaos.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom: Which states have the greatest participation. Why is this?
The project originated in the northern Gulf so we have deep participation there. In Florida, we have 120 vessels, many of them in the panhandle. In Alabama, we have 94 participants, many from Orange Beach. We have 16 in Texas and a handful in Mississippi. But we’re most excited to see trips originating from 25 different counties across the Gulf states.
Program participants have voluntarily reported now have eight months worth of catch and discard data for 29 species including the most caught: Red Snapper, Vermilion Snapper, Red Porgy, Red Grouper and Gray Triggerfish.
So far, CLS America technicians have installed the new monitoring equipment on a total of 234 vessels. No question it’s a popular program and we only have capacity for 23 more vessels. Ideally, we’d like those to be based in the Eastern Gulf or Western gulf (think Florida’s west coast and Texas) so we can strengthen the overall premise and produce the best data set.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom: What program benefits can Captains expect from participating?
The technology offers Captains their own database that’s accessible 24×7 — by them or their authorized users. They get to view where and when their most successful trips have been, and see that data on easy to read screens rather than pages upon pages of handwritten logs. If they wish, they can overlay weather conditions, depth contours, sea state or other environmental impacts on that trip to better understand the conditions and results. And there’s the invaluable component of contributing new and better data to the overall database that can help inform fishery managers for better decisions.
The equipment, installation and training is all complimentary — and the technology is industry leading. There’s a small monthly fee to access the technology, which can be postponed during short seasons and reconnected when the vessel returns to fishing. Other than time to learn the system protocol, it’s all free.
Gulf Seafood News: Talk to us about the technology; complicated stuff?
No, just the opposite. CLS America has developed a VMS/Electronic Reporting product, THORIUM, which is a real-time, global satellite data communications device with an innovative solution for data input. THORIUM lets fishermen easily submit fisheries forms that fit perfectly with the Gulf States, NMFS and NOAA communications requirements. Alabama’s system has been programed to integrate with the required state Department of Marine Resources Fishery’s department reports.
Program participants receive the THORIUM software, the advanced satellite system and complimentary installation, altogether more than $2,500 worth of technology and equipment. Next to the real-time, verified database our program provides, the THORIUM technology is the factor Captains are citing most for participating.
What’s unique is that participants get to keep the THORIUM system once they get involved. It’s theirs. And it provides a number of features for vessel owners and captains that are immediately beneficial including fast, reliable and inexpensive satellite email, weather updates and 50Kb of data transmission to and from the Iridium beacon. This data plan is consistent with ER solutions worldwide, and provides ample service for the Gulf of Mexico Charter Boat Electronic Reporting Project. In the event that use exceeds 50Kb, CLS America would charge a nominal fee for the overage.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom: What, if any, elements of the program are still in development?
Really, the only thing that’s ongoing is our process improvement. Our feedback loop is always open on the process, the form, the communication — anything we can do to make it easier and more productive to participate.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the program’s key developments in the next 30-60 days?
We will see results soon from our independent validation, conducted by Dr. Lynne Stokes of Southern Methodist University in Texas. Dr. Stokes is a renowned statistician who specializes in fisheries data issues and has worked closely as a consultant with MRIP and other NOAA offices. She and her team have been assessing the integrity of this program to insure that the data collected can be fully utilized by MRIP. The validation methods include dockside survey interviews of completed fishing trips along with at-sea observer sampling trips for participating Gulf States. So far, Dr. Stokes feels good about the calibration of the data, and so do we.
We’ll also see new participants whittle down our remaining 23 available spots. It’s the end of the year when folks are finalizing their business plan for 2017 and we know the THORIUM capabilities figure prominently into the profitability plans our users have planned.
Gulf Seafood Newsroom: So you’re improving the data for better management, and helping to build stronger businesses. That’s certain to pique more interest; how can Captains get involved?
You can start by contacting any of the Regional Coordinators. They can answer any questions and get you right in.
- Alabama: Destin: Capt. Gary Jarvis – firstname.lastname@example.org – 850‐259‐5482
- Florida/Panama City: Capt. Billy Archer – Bigtrig42@aol.com – 850‐527‐4966
- Florida West Coast: Capt. Mike Colby – Captmike50@hotmail.com – 727‐461‐4533
- ELB Program/Louisiana: Bob Gill – email@example.com – 352‐795‐3843
- Texas: Capt. Scott Hickman – firstname.lastname@example.org – 713-899-6027
- Mississippi: Joe Jewell – Joe.Jewell@dmr.ms.gov – 228-523-4072 or Carly Somerset, email@example.com – 228-513-4133