The Moriah Lee out of Morro Bay, California, is one of the vessels participating in the California Groundfish Collective, experimenting with electronic monitoring systems.
MORRO BAY - The Moriah Lee out of Morro Bay, California, is one of the vessels participating in the California Groundfish Collective, experimenting with electronic monitoring systems. ©: Corey Arnold

Food & Water Stories

Fishing for Better Data

Improving Fisheries through Electronic Monitoring and Reporting

Dive Deeper

Catalyzing Growth of EM

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Without high quality data regarding what’s brought to the dock and what’s thrown back at sea, the sustainable management of many fisheries is out of reach. Good, reliable information about fish health, abundance, distribution and age class structure is vital for both fisheries managers and people who earn their living from the sea.

Unfortunately, traditional methods for collecting and analyzing information on harvest activity can be too expensive or fail to produce credible and useful data

We can’t rely solely on governments to collect all the information needed to guide the management of hundreds of fisheries, especially when natural resource management agencies are already stretched well beyond their capacities.

The good news is that fishing communities can be equipped and empowered to collect much of the data that’s needed for the sustainable management of fisheries, lessening the burden on government agencies. And, fortunately, it’s been demonstrated that technology known as electronic monitoring (EM) and electronic reporting (ER) can help fishermen fill this information gap while producing cost-effective results.

Improved data from fisheries can help ensure that fish for the market is coming from sustainable sources.
THE FISH MARKET - Improved data from fisheries can help ensure that fish for the market is coming from sustainable sources. © Andy Bustin

The Past—Logbooks and Human Fisheries Observers

Most fishery management systems rely heavily on data from fishermen’s daily logbooks that include locations, amount of time spent fishing, how many fish were caught, and how many and what kind of fish or other species were discarded.

Until recently, human observers have been the only option to validate logbook data. But the reality is that data from observers can be inaccurate for a variety of reasons, and they also cover just a tiny fraction of global fishing activities—likely less than 2 percent.

The Potential Future—Electronic Monitoring and Electronic Reporting

A video camera for electronic monitoring is assembled on the Dawn T fishing vessel at Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich, Cape Cod.
AN EYE ON THE CATCH - A video camera for electronic monitoring is assembled on the Dawn T fishing vessel at Saquatucket Harbor in Harwich, Cape Cod. © Lauren Owens

Electronic reporting (ER). Most data on fisheries is still recorded on paper and then entered by hand into computer systems to allow managers and scientists to track fishing activity. ER enables fishermen to enter data into apps on computers, tablets or smart phones and then share the info with multiple parties, including management agencies.

Electronic monitoring (EM) uses on-board cameras to capture fishing activity. The video is augmented with sensors that detect fishing gear motion and GPS units that supply time and location data. The video and related data is typically stored on hard drives and then reviewed by onshore analysts to extract the desired information.

Gear sensors, video cameras, GPS and computer combine information to provide detailed data on vessels' catches.
ELECTRONIC MONITORING - Gear sensors, video cameras, GPS and computer combine information to provide detailed data on vessels' catches. © TNC

In addition to improving regulatory compliance, the data EM provides can help managers set sustainable annual catch limits and design fishery management plans to meet diverse objectives. EM also can create more fishing opportunities—there are cases where improved data from EM has led regulatory agencies to extend fishing seasons, increase catch limits or allow fishing in areas that were formerly closed.

In most fisheries, EM systems can achieve monitoring goals more cost-effectively than human observers and can more easily scale to cover 100 percent of fishing activity. Also, EM can provide transparency in the first, critical link in a supply chain that is traceable from supply to plate, giving consumers confidence when purchasing premium-priced seafood that is labeled as “sustainably harvested.”

A fisherman measures his catch in view of the electronic monitoring cameras. Video reviewers will convert lengths to weight to be used for science and management.
MEASURING THE CATCH - A fisherman measures his catch in view of the electronic monitoring cameras. Video reviewers will convert lengths to weight to be used for science and management. © Ayla Fox

Standardizing electronic monitoring for commercial fisheries

Today, there are approximately 1,000 EM systems installed on boats worldwide in a combination of pilots and full-fledged programs. EM, however, appears to be at a critical moment in its development. On its current trajectory, EM may be installed only on about 5,000 more vessels in the coming decade. That growth rate is disappointing. With a more concerted effort to promote it, EM has the potential to become standard practice for high-value fisheries in strong governance regions around the world and to gain a foothold in some of the more challenging, but globally significant, fishing regions. This could amount to its use on more than 25,000 fishing vessels in the next 10 years in some of the world’s most important fisheries.

If we can successfully expand the use of EM and ER in the U.S. to include most of the larger, federally managed fisheries, that will help spur cost reductions and accelerate the adoption of this technology around the globe. But it will take investments in order to make this a reality.

It is long past time to bring fisheries monitoring into the 21st century. EM is poised to help managers illuminate the dark spots in fisheries management and create billions in economic upside for fishermen.

Tapping Into Artificial Intelligence (AI)

One of the biggest challenges of catalyzing the growth of EM is the amount of time it takes to analyze video data. To find innovative ways to lower these costs, the Conservancy turned to two “crowdsourcing” competitions to develop algorithms that could automatically count, identify and measure species. The results were very promising. See the winners from the Kaggle community and from DRIVENDATA.

The Future of Fishing This 1-minute video shows how electronic monitoring has benefited the groundfish fishery in New England.

Dive Deeper into EM

  • Catalyzing the Growth of Electronic Monitoring in Fisheries
Building Greater Transparency and Accountability at Sea

    Catalyzing Growth of EM

    (2.17 MB PDF)

    The Conservancy's 70-page paper provides detail and input from more than 40 electronic monitoring experts.

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  • Electronic Monitoring Program Toolkit, A Guide for Designing and Implementing Electronic Monitoring Programs

    Electronic Monitoring Toolkit

    (305.48 KB PDF)

    Produced by The Conservancy and partners, this is an overview of questions and issues that may arise when governmental bodies and fishery managers are considering the development and implementation of electronic monitoring programs for fisheries.

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