Compulsory electronic logging of certain types of fish catches by commercial fishing operations could be coming to two U.S. states in the coming months.
In June, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed mandatory use of electronic reporting (ER) and electronic logbooks for pelagic longline, bigeye tuna catches from class C and D vessels in Hawaii and American Samoa.
The rule could be finalized by the end of the year, according to officials with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
As the program starts, NMFS has committed to paying all e-logbook costs for individual fishers. Recording would be within an android-based tablet, provided by NMFS. There are 146 vessels in the Hawaii longline fishery and 16 vessels in the American Samoa fleet, according to NMFS data.
NMFS cites many benefits for the switch to e-logbooks, including that it’s expected to save time for both fishers and the NMFS. A bigger payoff, though, comes from increased accuracy in monitoring and forecasting catch limits, according to the Fisheries Service. A core concern among fishery experts has been that paper-based data is slow.
In a background document, NOAA stated that “the demands for more precise, timelier, and more comprehensive fishery-dependent data continue to rise every year.”
In a “Regulatory Impact Review” published in April, NOAA stated that total program costs are variable and dependent “on many factors, such as fishing effort.” NOAA plans to bundle existing data costs with ER data transmission costs, eliminating the need for vessel operators to set up and maintain accounts.
“Annual satellite transmission costs fluctuate relative to fishing effort,” NOAA stated in the review, and estimates those costs to be about $49 per month per vessel, or a total of $95,256 annually for 146 vessels. Tablet lifecycle is estimated to be three years, an annual cost of about $40,000 based on an anticipated 50 tablets procured each year at $800 per tablet.
E-logbooks provide almost real-time reporting; in contrast, updating databases from paper logbooks can take two- to three-weeks, according to NMFS. That delay impacts near term forecasting, potentially skewing bigeye tuna catch limits set by the Western and Central Pacific Commission. Inaccuracies can mean that catch limits are set too low, thereby hitting fishers’ income, or too high, possibly undercutting sustainability efforts.
With e-logbooks, the Hawaii region could eliminate more than 20,000 daily catch and effort pieces of paper per year that are currently keypunched, according to the Fisheries Service.
Electronic reporting is actually already well established among many Hawaiian long-line pelagic fishers. NOAA writes that 94 of 144 vessels currently voluntarily use e-logbooks. However, of the 13 active Class C and D vessels in the American Samoa fishery, none currently use electronic reporting, data show.
The mandatory aspect of NOAA’s proposal is part of a trend that’s been developing for a while.
NOAA Fisheries Supervisory Fisheries Research Scientist Keith Bigelow said that e-reporting in some fishery regions is ahead of others, with Alaska and the Northeast portion of the continental U.S. out front. In fact, starting Nov. 10, 2021, in the Northeast, NOAA will require electronic vessel trip reporting for commercial and for-hire vessels. Vessel trip reports are due electronically within 48 hours of the end of a trip.
NOAA hopes to have its new Hawaii-American Samoa program finalized later in 2021, according to Bigelow. In advance of that and over the past few years, the Agency has been working with long-line fishers to prepare for the end of paper.
E-logbook development has been a coordinated effort among NOAA personnel and regional fishers. Training has been ongoing for those captains still using paper. Some were hesitant to make the switch, explained Asuka Ishizaki, protected species coordinator with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council. However, “as more people were trained and started using ER, the word has spread that the ER system is more convenient than paper logs,” Ishizaki said.
Another challenge in the Pacific fishery, Ishizaki explained, is that the Hawaii longline fleet is ethnically diverse and English is a second language for many of the Vietnamese-American vessel owners and operators. To help with this language barrier, the Pacific Fishery Council has engaged a Vietnamese-speaking trainer to accelerate voluntary uptake prior to mandatory ER implementation.
“We are pleased with the number of volunteer vessels we’ve been able to attract into the program,” Bigelow commented, adding that “many people heard about the opportunity from our staff who speak with captains regularly when they visit fishing piers to pick up paper log sheets.”
“We also produced a brochure, quick and comprehensive guides to the Elog-It software, and videos on how to use the software, which we loaded onto the tablets,” he explained.
The efforts have seemingly paid off. Eric Kingma, the executive director of the Hawaii Longline Association, said his organization supports required electronic reporting.
“There are no programmatic changes we’d like to make at this time,” he told Fishermen’s News, and also noted that benefits from NOAA’s “lengthy trial period and most kinks have been worked out.”
After the program officially starts up, Kingma said, he’s hoping that agencies will allow enough flexibility “to address any issues that come up, including software updates.”
Derek Southern is an expert on electronic reporting and fisheries who previously worked as a commercial fisherman in California for 10 years. In 2015, he was responsible for the distribution and implementation of the electronic logbook program for California’s Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel fleet.
This led to a paper he published in 2017 titled “United States Marine Fisheries Electronic-Catch Reporting: Status Report and Recommendations.” The paper points out that states, as well as federal agencies, also require fishing and catch reports. He writes that it is “valuable to understand how state data managers follow different processes to design and launch electronic logbooks.”
Southern was asked about the recent electronic reporting developments in Hawaii-Alaska and more broadly, the wider move to require electronic reporting across American fisheries.
“Both state and federally managed fisheries are making a good-faith effort to develop electronic logbooks and are doing a reasonable job rolling out the systems to the fishermen,” Southern said.
He said challenges arise when a fishery includes many participants using a range of vessels—not just vessel size but the degree and status of communications and technology across those vessels, some of which may not have computers or reliable WIFI at home ports but still have to submit logs at a high frequency, e.g., daily charter boat trips.
Southern said that successful electronic reporting requires six key features:
A compelling reason to do it. “If fishermen don’t believe there is any urgency to switch to electronic logbooks, they won’t,” Southern said, “especially if the electronic logbooks don’t work smoothly.”
Evaluating the fishery, then designing the software. In California, for example, some smaller lobster vessels don’t have desktop computers on board meaning captains could not comply with a requirement for at-sea reporting. Electronic reporting should best allow the use of a smartphone or ability to operate offline.
If possible, selecting a third-party to design and maintain software. Sometimes federal-state IT products are not as user-friendly as they could be.
Fishermen need to contribute to the software design process to assure that the product is user-friendly.
Programs should be accompanied by effective outreach and assistance. As noted above, this has been a big effort for NOAA in Hawaii-Alaska and across its web platform addressing other fisheries.
The electronic logbook should seek to accomplish more than just meeting a reporting requirement.
Regarding that last suggestion, Southern added that “designing an electronic logbook is a great opportunity for fisheries managers to provide an expanded tool to help encourage the conversion to electronic logbooks.”
For example, e-logbooks used by fish dealers includes QuickBooks accounting software, allowing dealers to simultaneously prepare and print invoices while completing harvest reporting. Company financial information, however, is kept confidential.
In Alaska, USB flash drives on tender vessels collect data useful to the seafood industry, data that includes chill type, fish temperatures, time of landing and other quality assurance metrics.
Southern said that common concerns among fishers is that an app or website is not user-friendly, leading to complaints that a device or program is “designed for someone who is tech savvy, but that’s not me.”
Agency staff have said that they’re working to promote ER need to emphasize its benefits to individuals, not just the agency. Southern said that people will note that an electronic log may require the same information as a paper log and then ask: “Why make the switch?”
Other complaints include inconvenience—returning from a trip, then having a tech problem, but having no assistance or back up at odd hours or on weekends or holidays. Also, there are criticisms and concerns about internet access at ports, Southern said.
Despite these challenges, Southern has the following conclusion: it’s 2021, time to complete the move away from paper.
Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy, environmental and related regulatory issues.