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  • Writer's pictureBen Martens

Accountability Amendment offers opportunity for the Groundfish Fleet

This article first appeared in the Maine Lobstermen's Community Alliance newspaper "Landings".

The New England Fishery Management Council (the Council) announced the development of Groundfish Amendment 23 and a series of scoping hearings it will be holding throughout New England (including one on Friday, March 3, at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum). The purpose of this Amendment is to improve the reliability and accountability of the Council’s monitoring program. In a press release, Council Executive Director Tom Nies further explained that “The Council, fishermen, and the public recognize the groundfish monitoring program needs improvement. This is the first and best opportunity for people to suggest ways to create a program that will give the accurate, reliable information needed to manage this fishery.”

Fishery management is a data-hungry enterprise so it isn’t surprising that there in a new focus on getting more reliable data into the scientific process. Much as we have seen movement toward incorporating “big data” into decision-making for marketing, finance and even baseball, fisheries managers are beginning to demand timely, accurate, and verifiable data to help them set regulations and establish catch limits. A lack of good data often forces managers to make decisions with a limited understanding of ecosystems, fish stocks and industry trends. This information gap puts fish stocks and fishing businesses at risk and is irresponsible when we have the tools to fix this problem.

Since the groundfish fishery moved to an allocation-based sector system in 2010, fishermen have been accountable for all fish caught on a trip, whether landed or discarded. While counting the landed catch is fairly simple, determining discards is more complicated. Currently, a set percentage of trips are observed by federal monitors, who collect information about discards observed on that trip. The accuracy of the data gathered by these monitors is critical to the success of New England’s groundfish fishery, as it helps tell the fishermen’s side of the story during the stock assessment process.

In general, monitoring has a negative connotation within the fishing industry. No fisherman wants to have an extra body on the boat watching them fish. However, the stream of information coming directly from an active fishing vessel is crucial to painting a complete picture of our fisheries. A partnership of The Nature Conservancy, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is currently conducting a project which puts monitoring technology using cameras onto groundfish vessels. These cameras monitor discards and develop a verified data stream with the hope of ultimately improving stock assessments, boosting fisheries’ health and profitability and giving power back to our fishing communities.

For the 2016 fishing season, close to a dozen groundfish vessels were outfitted with cameras and participated in the project. While some of the participants were small vessels looking to remove the burden of having an additional body on board, a handful were focused on finding a better way to get their data into the scientific process. These boats ran their cameras on 100% of the trips they took and while the data collected for management focused on discarded fish, other pieces of information may prove significant over time. For instance, one of the vessels noticed a significant increase in flatfish catch, even after the most recent stock assessment suggested these stocks were declining. So, in future years instead of simply telling regulators that he is seeing more fish, this fisherman will be able to deliver verified data to regulators showing how long it took him to harvest his catch and where it was caught. The information will have greater accuracy because everything was observed with a camera.

This kind of data can be significant with just one boat. With a fleet of vessels all collecting and supplying data streams we could be looking at a systematic shift in the importance of fisheries-dependent data in the management process.

In a fishery based on annual quotas, poor data causes problems to compound. Good data, on the other hand, can create a virtuous cycle in a well-managed fishery. No two fisheries are exactly alike, but those that have invested heavily in good stock assessment data and accurate reporting, such as the New England scallop fishery, have seen an unprecedented increase in value, sustainability and business security. For fisheries with poor accountability, like the New England groundfish fishery, data uncertainty has led to inaccurate stock assessments, a lack of faith in the science, and a federal economic disaster.

The work done in 2016 by fishermen running camera systems and their partners shows a new path toward accurate data collection. There exists a fantastic opportunity for the fishing industry to begin producing valuable data and have a profound impact on science, management and the regulatory process. Amendment 23 to the Groundfish Fishery Management Plan is a chance to ensure managers no longer rely on sub-par information to regulate New England’s fisheries and bring the industry back within the scientific process.

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