It’s time to fix catch-monitoring

<p>A trawler plies the Pacific for salmon in August, part of the commercial fishery based in local ports.</p>

It will never get 1/1,000th of the media attention devoted to glitches in government healthcare implementation, but for fishermen and other coastal residents the problems surrounding catch monitoring are a big headache.

As with the faulty website, a long-planned switch from human observers to electronic monitoring systems on fishing boats is dogged by technology that was over-promised and under-delivered.

For a number of years, fisheries observers have personally tracked whether fishermen are following catch limits and other rules, including those protecting non-targeted species from being accidently harvested (this is called by-catch.) This is expensive for boat operators and hazardous for observers, one of whom lost his life in local waters in March 2012 when the trawler Lady Cecelia sank with all hands.

NOAA Fisheries has been promising an electronic alternative, with full deployment set for December 2014. Largely based on boat-mounted cameras that are supposed to capture images that will be reviewed onshore, the new system is nowhere near achieving its goals by the deadline.

As described by federal watchdog Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), “This ambitious schedule reflects mounting industry frustration, as one commercial association official emailed earlier this year ‘They’ve had these cameras onboard for years and yet there’s no clear path to implementation… Fishermen and staff are extremely disappointed with the lack of progress.’”

PEER finds many flaws, including failure of cameras in maritime conditions, lack of sufficiently detailed images, and the fact that a large human staff will still have to be funded by the industry to review the images.

PEER advocates improving and strengthening the existing human-observer system. But this is unlikely to address industry concerns about expense and a perception of government meddling.

Perhaps it is time to spur private inventiveness by offering a hefty reward for a satisfactory way to cheaply ensure compliance with fishing rules. So far, government seems incapable of designing such a system.

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