An example of an electronic monitoring system used on fishing vessels. (Bruce Turris/Submitted photo)

DFO implements emergency electronic monitoring program to replace at-sea observers

Pilot program implemented on April 14 in groundfish trawl fishery

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is implementing an electronic monitoring program in the groundfish trawl fishery to replace at-sea observers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an April 14 fishery notice, DFO announced that the Emergency Electronic Monitoring (EM) Pilot Program was being implemented in the groundfish trawl fishery “effective immediately,” on the advice of the Groundfish Trawl Advisory Committee (GTAC).

The EM pilot program will last for the duration of DFO’s April 2 Fishery Management Order suspending the at-sea observer requirement for 45 days to help protect the health of observers and fishers from the spread of the novel coronavirus.

ALSO READ: Fisheries and Oceans Canada lifts at-sea observer requirements due to COVID-19

DFO communications advisor Lauren Girdler told the Observer the EM systems are strategically positioned to provide information on fishing activity, species identification, whether catch was retained or released, and compliance with fishing regulations.

The EM data will be reviewed by the service provider, Archipelago Marine Research, for the purpose of catch accounting and to audit fishery logbooks.

“Comprehensive, independent catch monitoring is an essential component of the groundfish trawl fishery’s management regime,” Girdler said. “In the absence of at-sea observers, EM may fulfill this need for comprehensive, independent catch monitoring on an interim basis.”

She said all monitoring costs associated with the pilot program will be borne by the fishery through contracts with Archipelago.

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Bruce Turris, executive manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, told the Observer that GTAC had already been working on a proposal to implement an EM program when they heard the at-sea observer requirement was being lifted.

Following DFO’s Fishery Management Order, GTAC had an emergency conference call on April 7 to complete their proposal, which DFO approved on April 9.

“Having no at-sea monitoring really just wasn’t an option to the industry,” Turris said, adding that monitoring provides important data for fishery management and sustainability, and “keeps everyone playing by the same rules.”

He said EM systems cost between $10,000 and $20,000, not including installation.

“They either purchase it and have it installed or they can rent the system on a daily basis for about $70 a day,” he said. “Yes, there’s a cost to it.”

Since $70 per day “adds up,” he said most operators that he knows of have decided to purchase the system outright.

Having an at-sea observer on board normally costs about $600 per day, he added, so “the costs were there.”

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The EM pilot program also includes other new requirements for groundfish trawl fishers, including new hail procedures and that vessels retain all rockfish catch for validation during offload.

“These requirements have been implemented to improve species identification in the absence of at-sea observers and to ease data management for this interim program,” Girdler said.

EM systems that use cameras, GPS and gear sensors are used in a number of fisheries, she added, including all commercial groundfish fisheries that target halibut, sablefish, lingcod, dogfish, rockfish, hake, and a number of flatfish and cod species.

The systems have been commonly used throughout the commercial groundfish fisheries since 2006.

Commercial groundfish trawl fishers were primarily observed via at-sea observers before COVID-19.

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