The US West Coast mid-water trawl fishery for Pacific whiting has adopted electronic monitoring to help manage quotas, reduce discards, and control costs. Introduced as an automated alternative to onboard observers more than a decade ago, this monitoring initiative is helping to ensure the long-term livelihood of local fishermen, while setting a global benchmark for responsible fishing practices around the world.

The US whiting fishery is a high–volume midwater trawl fishery operating off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and northern California. The fishery has three sectors: catcher vessels delivering to shore–based seafood processors, catcher vessels delivering to at–sea mothership processors, and catcher processors that catch and process fish onboard the same vessel. Thirty–seven catcher vessels are endorsed to participate in the shoreside and mothership sectors.

To ensure a sustainable future for this resource, the fishery is regulated by an annual quota for total allowable catch. Although the fishery initially assessed total removals by monitoring catch offloaded at the dock, this method was later revised to account for all catch, including fish discarded at sea. This requirement led to a prohibition of at–sea discards, along with a fleet­–wide program to monitor and verify—at sea—each vessel’s compliance with the fishery’s catch-retention regulations.

However, the realities of monitoring and verifying compliance at sea posed a challenge. For the shoreside fishery, the requirement of running many short fishing trips of less than a day, often departing with little notice, made onboard human observations a challenge. To accommodate the unique logistical requirements of this fishery, an automated electronic monitoring system was identified as an appropriate alternative.

Program goals

To further explore and develop this initiative, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Fisheries Science Center contracted Archipelago. From 2004 to 2010, Archipelago designed, developed, and managed a program to monitor the shore–based component of the fishery using electronic monitoring (EM) data to achieve several goals:

  • Verify maximized retention of catch
  • Confirm fishing occurs only within permitted areas
  • Provide a resource of accurate data to help characterize the fishery
  • Verify catch records provided by skippers
  • Develop a cost–effective approach to providing at-sea monitoring for the fishery

As part of 2004–2010 EM program, participating vessels were equipped with an onboard electronic monitoring system that was configured to operate continuously while the vessel was at sea. Each system consisted of up to four video cameras, fishing gear sensors (on the winch drum and hydraulic lines), and a GPS receiver, all monitored by a control center and data logger installed on the bridge.

Archipelago technicians were available at landing ports to service EM systems, and retrieve hard drives as necessary. All EM data were provided to Archipelago for analysis, and results were reported to both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the fishing industry on a regular basis.

Annual reports were compiled for each fishery year, and a summary report produced to document the entire program. (See “Electronic Monitoring in the Shore-side Hake Fishery 2004–2010” ).

Costs and efficiencies

The program was funded primarily by industry at an average cost of ~$180 per sea day (with variances based on such factors as equipment requirements and the duration of each fishing season). This cost could have been reduced if fishers had chosen to purchase their EM systems and install them permanently; however, most initially opted to lease and install their EM systems annually—an artifact of the year–to–year uncertainty of this trial program.

Conclusion of a successful monitoring initiative

By the program’s conclusion in 2010, participants had witnessed significant improvements. Sensor and image data had successfully profiled over 96% of fishery activity for most years. Success rates for data collection were highest in the final years of the program, with 99.0% (2009) and 98.7% (2010) of all video data recorded successfully.

EM was found to provide the same or better data quality as an onboard observer in recording the times and locations of each haul, and in confirming retention of all catch (although the wide–angle camera views used in this early application had in some cases limited the ability to identify individual species).

While operating under the EM program, participants had reduced discard quantities by 90%, to levels less than 0.3% of the total allowable catch (with the remaining incidences limited to occasional “operational” events).

Comparisons between the monitoring data and the logbook data showed strong agreement in event reporting (89%) and significant correlation in discard quantities. The quality of most (90%) of the EM data gathered was classified as either “medium” or “good”; overall the program was determined to be effective at documenting and characterizing discard activity (i.e. quantity, method, and reason for discarding).

Through the ongoing commitment of the fishermen and the whiting fishery project team, information obtained from the EM program has helped to drive change throughout the fishery; increasing the quality of catch data, decreasing the quantity of discards, and improving sustainable fishing practices overall.

2011 to present: After a hiatus, the start of a new EM program

Total discards decreased from 2004 to 2010

Although widely considered to be a success, the seven–year EM program was discontinued in 2011 when the groundfish IFQ catch share quota system was implemented along with a requirement for 100% observer–based monitoring of the entire groundfish fleet. Initially, NMFS funded a large portion of the observer program, but this subsidy has declined annually, and is projected to end in 2016. (As of 2015, the cost of human observers was averaging approximately $500 per day).

In an effort to enable more cost–effective monitoring, the whiting industry began making requests to NMFS and the Pacific Fishery Management Council to restore electronic monitoring within the fleet. In September 2014, PFMC approved an application for an experimental fishing permit (EFP) for the whiting fleet. The EFP provides for a two–year trial EM program with the at–sea and shore–based whiting sectors. Participation in the program is voluntary, with vessels carrying EM systems to be exempt from the 100% observer requirement. As a pioneer of EM technology and the company that developed and led the 2004 to 2010 whiting EM program, Archipelago was selected to lead this new initiative.

Today Archipelago is working closely with the United Catcher Boats and the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative to provide a cost–effective monitoring program that will inform federal regulations, and support EM as a viable monitoring alternative for this fishery in the near future.