Human observers are widely being replaced by cameras on fishing boats.
(TNS) -- NARRAGANSETT, R.I. -- Chris Brown has grown used to the five video cameras that record every move he and his two crew members make aboard the Proud Mary.
Since installing the equipment in January on the 45-foot otter trawler, whenever Brown steams out of Galilee in search of flounder and other groundfish in the Atlantic Ocean waters off Rhode Island, the electronic monitoring system kicks on.
And as Brown engages the boat's hydraulics to haul in its nets, the cameras track everything he and his crew catch, all the fish they keep and all the fish they discard over the side.
The cameras may seem intrusive, but then Brown has an easy answer when asked about them.
"I'd much rather have a camera overhead than an observer under foot," he said.
Brown is one of three Rhode Island fishermen who have signed on to a program that is testing out electronic surveillance as an alternative to human monitors that the federal government requires to be on board one in every seven fishing trips in the Northeast in an effort to stamp out overfishing.
The new program being led by The Nature Conservancy offers the potential for closer observation of commercial fishing, enhancing compliance with quotas and deterring misreporting.
Its supporters say it also provides more accurate data that will lead to better science and better regulations, all with the aim of supporting a fishing industry that is sustainable for years to come.
"There's a mismatch between what fishermen say they see on the water and what the science says," said Christopher McGuire, marine program director with The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts. "We're trying to bridge that gap."
Electronic monitoring on fishing boats is nothing new. It's been in use in British Columbia, in Canada, for more than 15 years, was eventually adopted by American fisheries in the Pacific Northwest, and was tested by Cape Cod fishermen as far back as 2005.
The Nature Conservancy started experimenting with the technology in 2013 as it became apparent that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would stop paying for human at-sea monitors and would instead require fishermen to cover costs that on any given fishing trip can run up to $710 a day.
The group started out with a handful of boats in Maine and expanded the pilot program to Massachusetts last year after winning permission from NOAA Fisheries to replace human observers with the camera systems on a trial basis.
It expanded to Rhode Island this year after Brown, Rodman Sykes and John Dougherty, who all fish out of Galilee, expressed interest in participating. In total, 14 boats are now taking part and collecting data on every one of their trips.
That type of increase in the amount of information being submitted to the government could lead to a better system of quotas, John Bullard, regional administrator of NOAA Fisheries, has said.
"So while at-sea monitoring is a cost, [electronic monitoring] could be an investment," he said in a recent statement.
Mike Russo, a Provincetown fisherman who joined the trial program last year, goes a step further, saying that video evidence will prove his contention that fish stocks are in better shape than the government estimates.
"The sooner you have 100 percent accountability, the sooner quotas go up," Russo said. "It takes the uncertainty out of everything."
But not everyone has embraced electronic monitoring. Some fishermen, already tired of tighter regulation of their industry, have bucked against the "Big Brother" aspect of being recorded around the clock. Others are resistant because they may underreport the amount of fish they discard that exceeds their quotas, said McGuire.
There are also questions about the effectiveness of the technology itself. The fisheries on the West Coast where electronic monitoring has been successful generally have few species. In New England, there are many more and some are difficult to tell apart, said Anna Malek Mercer, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation, an industry-funded group based at the University of Rhode Island that has not taken a position on electronic monitoring.
In the first couple of years of The Nature Conservancy program, accuracy was an issue, with sometimes sizable differences in discards reported using the video monitoring system versus human observers. But as the system has been refined, those differences have shrunk.
McGuire is working with scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on fish recognition software that could improve accuracy and also reduce one of the main cost drivers of the electronic system -- the amount of time it takes reviewers to go through all the data that's collected from the boats and mailed to them on hard drives.
As it stands, installing an electronic system costs up to $8,000 and reviewing an average trip is an additional $300 or so, all paid for under the test program by The Nature Conservancy. Those costs will come down as more improvements are made, McGuire argues.
"But the cost of human observers will never go down," he said. "It will be the same, or more."
On a recent afternoon, Brown showed U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse around the Proud Mary. He explained how the system works, and Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who has sponsored legislation to enhance ocean protections, said he would look into allocating funds for expanding electronic monitoring.
The new system could allow real-time data review, an antidote, said Brown, to the current regulatory regime that can be too reliant on outdated information on fish abundance. That is especially important in an era of climate change as ocean temperatures rise and more warm-water species move into Northeast waters.
"In order to make it as an industry, we have to inform scientists, so they can make a change immediately and say, 'Go get 'em,'" said Brown, who is president of the Rhode Island Commercial Fishermen's Association and executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America.
He knows the opposition to increased monitoring is strong, but he hopes to win a few converts.
"The older you get, you worry about your legacy," said Brown, who is 59 and has been a commercial fisherman since 1978. "You want to be judged favorably by what you leave behind."
©2017 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.