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Fishermen skeptical about electronic observers

A camera, at left, on Gloucester fisherman Bill Skrobacz’s boat, is designed to monitor the catch under federal regulations. A camera, at left, on Gloucester fisherman Bill Skrobacz’s boat, is designed to monitor the catch under federal regulations. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / September 18, 2011

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BOSTON - New England’s already strapped fishing fleet has a major new expense bearing down on it - paying for human monitors to track the fish that are hauled on deck or tossed over. That is, unless researchers can figure out how to replace those humans with cheaper electronic eyes.

A federally funded pilot project is testing a system at sea that could record the catch and even figure out what it weighs, relying largely on closed-circuit cameras on board.

The system wouldn’t completely replace the flesh-and-blood observers fishermen are periodically required to take to sea. But a primary aim is to reduce the need for them and save fishermen money, said Nichole Rossi, the project’s lead.

Some fishermen are skeptical a camera system can be accurate or less expensive than a person on board. Others don’t like the observer program at all, considering it intrusive and a sign of how little regulators trust them.

There is agreement that the industry needs to find a way to avoid what could be crushing costs.

“It’s going to be another nail in the coffin, maybe the last one,’’ said Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman.

The on-board observers are employed by government-approved private contractors.

But more observers were needed to ride with the region’s fishermen after a switch to a new system for regulating their catch.

The new regulations see most fishermen working together in “sectors’’ to divide an allotted catch of groundfish, such as haddock, cod, and flounder. The fishermen are under strict limits on how much they can catch and how many unmarketable fish they can throw overboard.

If fishermen exceed a limit on one species, the fleet must stop fishing on all species, making it crucial to better track what fishermen are catching. So fishery regulators expanded the number of observers working the groundfishing fleet, and they’re now required on 38 percent of all groundfish trips.

The government tried to ease the switch to the new system by agreeing to pay all observer expenses for the first two years at a cost of $8.8 million. But starting in the 2012 fishing year, fishermen will have to bear a big part of those costs by paying to take the observers to sea at a cost of about $600 a day, on average.

The expense would hit the smallest boats hardest. According to federal statistics, it’s half of the $1,200 in revenues that groundfish vessels measuring less than 30 feet long averaged in 2010. Gloucester fisherman Bill Skrobacz said on some days the observer on his 31-foot vessel would make far more than a crewman.