PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Mark Hager’s work as an observer on New England fishing boats over the years has made him a high-profile figure, regarded as a good man on the seas. The nosy cop who counts and inspects every cod, haddock and halibut to help set critical quotas.
On one particularly dangerous voyage, he spent 12 days at sea without a single word from the crew.
Now Hager is working to replace such federally-mandated observers with high-definition cameras affixed to fishing boat masts. From the safety of his office, Hagrid watched hours of footage on his laptop as crew members hauled the day’s catch aboard and measured it with long sticks marked with thick black lines. And he was able to zoom in on each fish to verify its size and species, noting whether they were being kept or legally thrown into the sea.
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“Once you see hundreds of thousands of pounds of these species, it becomes second nature,” said Hager, who switches from one fish to another.
Hager’s Maine-based startup, New England Maritime Monitoring, is one of many companies looking to help merchant ships comply with new U.S. regulations aimed at protecting dwindling fish stocks. It’s a buoyant business as demand for sustainably caught seafood and 24/7 monitoring soars from the Gulf of Alaska to the Straits of Florida.
But taking the technology overseas—where the vast majority of seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught—is a daunting challenge. Only a few countries can match the strict regulation of the United States. And China — the world’s largest seafood supplier with a scandalous record of illegal fishing — seems unlikely to embrace the fishing equivalent of police body cameras.
Well-meaning efforts to replenish fish stocks and reduce bycatch of threatened species like sharks and sea turtles could turn out to backfire, scientists worry: More fishing could be shifted overseas by adding to the regulatory burdens U.S. skippers already face, Further out of the sight of environmentalists and consumers.
“The challenge now is to get the political will,” said Jamie Gibbon, an environmental scientist at the Pew Charitable Trusts who is leading its efforts to expand electronic surveillance internationally. “We are getting close to a point where the technology is reliable enough that countries will have to show whether they are committed to transparency and responsible fisheries management.”
For many advocates, electronic surveillance is a panacea.
Since 1970, the world’s fish populations have declined so dramatically that today 35 percent of commercial fish stocks are overfished. Meanwhile, an estimated 11 percent of U.S. seafood imports come from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
To sustainably manage what’s left, scientists need reliable data on the activities of the tens of thousands of fishing boats that ply the ocean every day, the vast majority of which are barely supervised.
Traditional tools such as captain’s logbooks and dock inspections provide limited information. Meanwhile, independent observers—key to the fight against illegal fishing—are few: just 2,000 globally. In the United States, the number of trained people willing to take low-paying jobs involving long hours at sea in the often dangerous fishing industry has been unable to keep up with the growing demand for bait-to-plate traceability.
Even when observers are on deck, the data they collect can sometimes be skewed.
A recent NOAA study found that New England skippers altered their behavior in subtle but important ways when observers were on deck, reducing the quality of fishery data, a phenomenon known as “Observer bias”.
“The truth is human observers are annoying,” Hager said. “Nobody wants them there, and when they’re not threatened or bribed, the data they provide is deeply flawed because it turns out fishermen behave differently when they’re being watched.”
Enter Electronic Surveillance. For as little as $10,000, ships can be outfitted with high-resolution cameras, sensors and other technology to safely and reliably see what was once a huge blind spot. Some setups allow video to be transmitted back to shore in real-time via satellite or cellular data—providing a previously unimaginable level of transparency.
“This is not your grandfather’s fishery anymore,” said Captain Al Cottone, who recently installed cameras on his 45-foot groundfish trawler Sabrina Maria. “If you’re sailing, you just turn on the camera.”
Despite these advantages, video surveillance has failed to catch on since it debuted in the late 1990s as a pilot program to stop overfishing of crabs in British Columbia. Only about 1,500 of the world’s 400,000 industrial fishing vessels are equipped with such monitoring systems. About 600 of them are in the United States, which has been driving innovation in this area.
“We’re still in the early days,” said Brett Alger, the NOAA official responsible for rolling out electronic monitoring in the U.S.
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Risks are especially high in the western and central Pacific Ocean, home to the world’s largest tuna fishery. Observer coverage for the Pacific longline fleet (about 100,000 boats) is about 2 percent—well below the 20 percent minimum threshold scientists say they need to assess fish health. Also, observer coverage has been completely suspended across vast swaths of the world since the coronavirus pandemic began, even though the roughly 1 billion fishing hooks placed in the water each year have barely ebbed.
“Right now we’re flying blind,” said Mark Zimlin, an environmental scientist with The Nature Conservancy who focuses on expanding video surveillance to large fisheries around the world. “We don’t even have the basic science to make the right rules of the game.”
The lack of internationally accepted protocols and technical standards has slowed progress in video surveillance because of the high costs associated with reviewing large volumes of footage ashore. As machine learning and artificial intelligence (techniques his firm is experimenting with) ease the burden on analysts who have to sit and watch hours of repetitive video, some of those costs will come down, Hager said.
Market pressures may also spur faster adoption. More recently, Bangkok-based Thai Union, owner of the Red Lobster restaurant and Chicken of the Sea tuna brand, committed to monitoring 100 percent of its fast-track tuna supply chain “above water” by 2025. Much of that is coming from electronic surveillance.
But by far the biggest hurdle to a faster international rollout is a lack of political will.
This is most dramatic in the high seas, traditionally lawless waters that endanger nearly half of the planet. There, the task of managing the public’s resources is left to intergovernmental organizations, which make decisions based on consensus, so that any one country’s objections amount to a veto.
According to a 2019 study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, only six of the world’s 13 regional fisheries management organizations require on-board monitoring (observers or cameras) to enforce rules on gear use, bycatch and quotas , to provide economic policy advice for countries.
Among the worst offenders is China. Despite having the world’s largest fishing fleet, with at least 3,000 industrial-sized vessels operating internationally and tens of thousands more closer to home, China has fewer than 100 observers. Electronic monitoring includes only a few pilot projects.
Unlike the United States, where on-water monitoring is used to prepare stock assessments that drive policy, fisheries management in China is more primitive and enforcement of rules is spotty at best.
Last year, China sent just two scientists to monitor the hundreds of boats that spent months fishing for squid around the Galapagos Islands.At the same time, it blocked a widely supported South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization proposal to increase observer requirements
“If they want to do something, they definitely can,” said Yong Chen, a fisheries scientist at Stony Brook University in New York, whose lab communicates regularly with China. “It’s just a matter of prioritization.”
The danger to observers is highest outside U.S. waters, where electronic surveillance is least used. Since 2010, 16 observers have died worldwide, according to the American Association of Professional Observers.
Many of the deaths involved observers from impoverished South Pacific islands, working for little pay and with little training and support — even while stationed on U.S.-flagged vessels subject to federal safety regulations. Such working conditions leave observers vulnerable to bribery and threats from unscrupulous captains who themselves are under pressure to make every voyage count.
“It’s in our best interest to have really professional data collection, a secure environment and a lot of support from the (U.S.) government,” said Teresa Turk, a former observer who was part of a team of outside experts that The team conducted a comprehensive safety review of NOAA in 2017 after several observer deaths.
Back in the U.S., those who fish commercially for a living are still wary of viewing cameras as a double-edged sword.
Just ask Scott Taylor.
In 2011, his Day Boat Seafood became one of the first longline companies in the world to receive the Marine Stewardship Council Ecolabel, the industry gold standard. As part of its sustainability program, the Fort Pierce, Florida-based company has pioneered a path of video surveillance across the U.S. Atlantic tuna fleet.
“I really believe in it. I think it’s a game changer,” he said.
But his enthusiasm took a turn last year when NOAA used the videos to bring civil charges against him in what he said was an accidental case of illegal fishing.
The bust stems from four tuna boats managed by Day Boat heading to a small fishing hole surrounded on all sides by the Bahamas’ Exclusive Economic Zone and the United States’ protected area where commercial fishing is prohibited. Evidence reviewed by The Associated Press indicated that Taylor’s boat was fishing legally in U.S. waters when the hook was dropped. But hours later, some of the gear was carried by an unpredictable underwater eddy and drifted for miles across an invisible line into the Bahamas.
The geolocated video footage, crucial to proving the government’s case, shows how the boats picked up 48 fish — sailfish, tuna and mahi mahi — while fishing gear in Bahamian waters.
As a result, NOAA imposed a fine of up to $300,000, which nearly bankrupted Taylor’s business and had a chilling effect on the East Coast tuna fleet.
When electronic monitoring began a decade ago, it appealed to fishermen, who believed the more reliable data might help governments reopen coastal areas that had been closed to commercial fishing since the 1980s, when the fleet was five times larger. The article on NOAA’s website promises that the technology will be used to more precisely monitor tuna populations, rather than play “Big Brother.”
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“They snowballed everybody,” said Martin Scanlon, a New York boat captain and head of the Blue Water Fishermen’s Association, which represents about 90 longline vessels. “They never mentioned that it would be used as a compliance tool.”
Meanwhile, for Taylor, his two-year battle with the federal government has taken its toll. He had to lay off staff, lease out boats, and can no longer afford the license fee for his hard-earned eco-label. Most painfully, he gave up his dream of one day passing on the fishing business to his children.
“Today’s technology is very effective,” Taylor said. “But until foreign competitors are held to the same high standards, the only effect of all these incursions will be to put American commercial fishermen out of work.”
Associated Press writers Caleb Jones in Honolulu, Hawaii and Fu Ting in Washington contributed to this report.
This story was supported by funding from the Walton Family Foundation and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.