For years, strangers have boarded Randy Cushman’s small fishing boat in the dead of night, shared his and his crewmate’s bunk, and watched closely as the men hauled in everything from cod to monkfish.
The relationship between the region’s fishermen and the government observers who monitor their catch has long been uneasy, and that tension has only intensified since federal officials in March began requiring fishermen to pay hundreds of dollars every time an observer accompanies them to sea.
But in the coming weeks, fishermen and federal regulators are poised to launch an experimental new program that could go a long way toward ending the conflict, while also potentially curbing costs and allowing broader oversight.
With the help of private grants and the government’s blessing, fishermen from Cape Cod to Maine will rig their boats with an expensive suite of cameras, computers, and sensors to monitor their catch, replacing the on-board observers.
“This is a way to keep everyone honest,” said Cushman, who has fished for three decades out of Port Clyde, Maine, and has long chafed at having to accommodate an observer on his cramped boat.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has mandated observers on fishing boats to curb overfishing, assess the abundance of certain species, and prevent fishermen from discarding fish that exceed their quotas. Fishermen are legally bound to bring in everything they catch, even if that exposes them to penalties for overfishing that could negate their profits.
The hope is that electronic monitoring will provide scientists better data, a vital part of sustaining a healthy fishery, officials say.
“This pilot program is a very big step in giving us information about how the cameras work, and whether it will be accepted by the industry,” said John Bullard, NOAA’s regional administrator. He predicts that within several years the region’s groundfishing fleet will rely on a mix of observers and electronic monitoring.
The program, slated to begin next month, will include about 20 boats, roughly 10 percent of the region’s active groundfishing fleet, and will require fishermen to use sophisticated software, maintain cameras through the harsh conditions at sea, and submit to constant electronic scrutiny.
That has made some fishermen, who say their boats are like homes, uneasy.
They worry about losing their privacy and whether the footage could become public.
“Our bathrooms are buckets out on deck. I do not want some person counting how much toilet paper I use when I go to the head,” said David Goethel, who fishes cod out of Hampton, N.H.
Goethel sued NOAA last year for requiring fishermen to assume the costs of the observer program, which he said were too expensive and would put many of his colleagues out of business. The agency had previously covered the costs, but officials said they could no longer afford to subsidize the $3 million program.
“When is enough, enough?” Goethel asked. “The groups that want these systems would be the first people to block their use in their cubicle. Why are we any different?”
Others have raised concerns about whether the cameras can distinguish between different fish and whether fishermen could tamper with the cameras or find a way to conceal their true catch.
They also worry about the costs, noting NOAA studies published last year that predicted that electronic monitoring may be significantly higher than observers.
Fishermen are now required to pay an average of about $18,000 per year — or $710 per voyage — for observers to accompany them on one of every five trips. That requirement may be relaxed in the coming fishing season to about one in 10 outings.
NOAA estimated that each vessel would have to pay an average of about $50,000 a year to sustain the electronic monitoring program, not including about $60,000 for the system itself and additional costs the agency will assume.
But advocates of electronic monitoring, while acknowledging the challenges, say those estimates are significantly inflated. They say the costs could be reduced substantially if fishermen are allowed to mail in their footage and analysts aren’t required to review video from all of their trips. NOAA assumed that hard drives would be collected in person after every trip.
“There are a lot of false assumptions in NOAA’s reports,” said Ben Martens, director of the Maine Coast Community Sector, where several fishermen have tried electronic monitoring. “I honestly believe this is going to be a more cost-effective program.”
Smaller boats, the least likely to afford observers, would likely benefit the most from electronic monitoring, he said.
“This is the best longterm solution to balance accountability and affordability,” Martens said.
Environmental advocates said there are reasons for optimism and skepticism about electronic monitoring. Similar programs in British Columbia and in the southern Atlantic appear to be effective, they said.
But success depends on a range of factors, including how much of the video is reviewed, the penalties for regulatory violations, and whether the equipment is rugged and easy to use, they said.
“The viability is nested in the details,” said Gib Brogan, a fisheries policy analyst for Oceana, an advocacy group. “If those details are weak, it just replaces the loopholes of a weak [observer] program with new loopholes. But well-designed electronic monitoring programs have proven to be very effective.”
For Cushman, who has been using an electronic monitoring system for the past two years, the learning curve has been steep.
At first, it took too long to enter data into the computer system, which contractors later checked for accuracy against the video.
“At first, it was very confusing, with lots of glitches in the system,” said Cushman, whose previous experience with computers had been limited. “But we’ve been able to deal with them.”
His routines have also changed. He regularly checks his computer to make sure the four cameras on his boat are working, has trained his crew to make fish visible to the camera, and has worked closely with contractors who review the footage.
The hope is that electronic monitoring relieves fishermen of the burdens of having observers onboard, while allowing the government to monitor more of their trips.
“This is the way to go,” he said.