By Monica Medina – June 2018

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On the eve of World Oceans Day on June 8th many leading oceans and fisheries experts gathered in Washington for the annual Capitol Hill Oceans Week meeting to engage one another – and law makers – on the pressing challenges impacting our nation’s vast ocean resources and the potential of our blue economy. One theme that surfaced repeatedly at the meeting was the role of technology in accelerating this positive change – for our oceans and those that depend upon them for their livelihoods. Because of new technologies, today, it is possible to sustainably manage our ocean resources in ways that were not possible nine years ago when I served in leadership at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But much of the promise of this new technology remains unfulfilled and that has negative and even tragic repercussions for the fishing industry.  Last month, NOAA released the results of an external review of its fisheries observer program following three suspicious fatalities in 2015 and 2016 – observers are the people the government requires fishers to take on some of their fishing trips to make sure they are in compliance with environmental regulations that prohibit overfishing and harming endangered species.

The report, which NOAA said demonstrated that their observer program was “robust, mature and effective,” actually contained dozens of far-reaching and significant recommendations about how to improve the program, from better training to requirements for insurance to mandatory physical exams so as to ensure dangerous health issues are identified before heading to sea. NOAA should mandate or encourage these improvements to ensure the safety of anyone on a fishing vessel, but that will only solve some of the problems inherent in the observer program in its current form.

An even a better idea is to embrace innovation and technology, as countless other industries have, and increase the use of electronic logbooks, cameras and computers for fisheries monitoring and reporting to provide more comprehensive and safe oversight of the fishing industry and better data on fishing.

This “sea change” in U.S. fisheries oversight would lead to faster, more robust, more technologically advanced and easily shared information about fishing and the fish harvested in the U.S. This would be beneficial to fishermen and ultimately consumers, and overall would be far more effective in today’s highly integrated and connected data driven world than the continued reliance upon human observers alone.

Much of the success in U.S. fisheries over the past several decades can be attributed to strong conservation mandates – but the government’s ability to implement them is hampered by a lack of timely data about what is coming out of the water, from where and how much.  The fishers file their trip reports dutifully, but they are regrettably using outdated systems that are slow and do not easily allow for data organization and analysis.  But today’s technology, if put to work in fisheries, could change that – and would translate into better and more timely management decisions by local fishing councils and NOAA.

Further, consumers are increasingly interested in tracing the source of their fish to be able to know that it is fresh and local, which would give U.S. fishers an important leg up in competing with cheap imported fish.  And ultimately, the kind of data that these new tools provide would give fishers more information about how and when to fish to improve their efficiency, and at lower costs.  Fishers who have embraced electronic systems, as many in the Pacific Northwest and New England have, are surprised by the systems’ affordability and ease of use.

While the economic and operational benefits of using electronic monitoring are increasingly understood, far less attention is paid to safety related issues, primarily for observers, but also for captain and crew.   When it announced the program review, NOAA leadership recognized, that fishing, as well as being an observer, “ranks among the most dangerous occupations. Imagine being at sea for long periods of time, surrounded by heavy machinery, stormy weather, and slippery surfaces. The working conditions are tough.”  Anyone who has watched Discovery’s popular TV show “Deadliest Catch” knows that all too well.

But the dangers are even greater for observers than for fishers because there are times when monitoring compliance puts them at odds with a crew. Unchecked, this friction can lead to a hostile workplace, particularly for women observers.  In fact, the number of observer harassment cases more than doubled from 2013 to 2015, with numerous vessels with repeat incidents. Worse yet, most cases remain unresolved or unsolved, just like the 2016 deaths, even months or years after their occurrence.

In short, no matter how rigorous and safe the observer program may have been, the report makes clear that it has many shortcomings for which technology provides better answers.  What is really needed is leadership and partnership – for the fishing industry and NOAA to bravely take this important step forward together.

Industry must be willing to adapt to improved methods of holding themselves accountable.  And the government and NGOs must recognize that a transition period and compliance assistance programs are needed for fishers to adapt to the new technology.  That kind of trust may be the hardest thing of all to achieve – and is what has constrained greater use of technology to date.

During next year’s Capitol Hill Ocean Week I remain hopeful that we will be able to reflect upon the previous 12 months and see that real progress has been made, and that technology is being better utilized and applied for the sake of our vast fisheries resources, and for realizing the improved economic and safety benefits for our nation’s fishers and industry. The time has come for the entire fishing industry – from recreational, to community-based to industrial fishers — in all parts of the country from Alaska to Florida and California to Maine — to fully embrace and join the 21st century!

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