Technology at sea: A refresher on EM, ER, and VMS.

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The evolution of technology in commercial fisheries is as constant as the industry itself. Traps, nets, engines, electronics, and materials have always been changing at varying paces through time. It is worth remembering that adopting new technologies, even if in some cases it’s mandator, can empower fishermen and make one’s operation more efficient.

Key among those are vessel monitoring systems (VMS), electronic monitoring (EM), and electronic reporting (ER). Many don’t understand what these technologies are or how they fit alongside one another.

Vessel monitoring system, or VMS, is a technology used to track vessels in near real time using devices on board which transmit location via satellite to shore based enforcement facilities. This is different from an automatic identification system (AIS), a vessel location system which uses the VHF radio band to transmit similar data and is accessible to anyone with the right equipment. VMS began as a tool to aid in fisheries enforcement in the 1990s in several fisheries worldwide. Now, most U.S. fishermen harvesting in federal waters must use a VMS transponder to transmit relevant location data back to National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Most inshore and state-managed fisheries around the U.S. do not have a VMS requirement. VMS data is typically not publicly available due to privacy, law enforcement and security concerns.

The commercial catch of target and non-target species is monitored primarily through the use of independent observers in U.S. federal fisheries. Due to cost and efficiency, many are now transitioning to electronic monitoring (EM) using mounted cameras. In particular, small boat fishermen in federal waters have been interested in switching over to fixed camera technology to ease the burden of carrying an additional person on board. EM is being tested around the country in various phases, depending on region. Innovation in camera technology, such as species identification using artificial intelligence is also well underway. Think about the artificial intelligence behind a mobile banking app, which reads a check deposited using a smartphone. EM makes catch and discard monitoring more efficient on board for those fishermen already required to carry observers.

Another technology that is becoming more common across fisheries is electronic reporting (ER). ER is the digitization of fish tickets or landings reports that fishermen have traditionally submitted to regulators in paper form.

Depending on the sophistication of the ER software, it can also be a powerful tool to provide real-time data to fishermen. It saves time when entering logbook data and calculating catch totals while allowing fishery managers to process landings data much more quickly, accurately, and efficiently. ER has been developed on devices ranging from special hardware to desktop computers and now is prevalent on tablets and smartphones. Many tablets and most smartphones running ER software also have GPS chips built in and may be able to serve as a low-cost alternatives to VMS, particularly in fisheries where vessel tracking has not yet been implemented.

East Coast fishermen are most familiar with reporting requirements through the submission of vessel trip reports (VTRs). Since March 2018, party and charter vessel operators in the Mid-Atlantic region have been submitting mandatory electronic VTRs (eVTRs), primarily using either free or paid apps on smartphones and tablets. The Mid-Atlantic and New England Fishery Management Councils have been deliberating on eVTR reporting and its potential application to all commercial federal fisheries in both regions. According to the Mid-Atlantic Council website, the Council chose in December to implement eVTRs in the region with a 48-hour deadline for submission after completion of a trip. The New England Fishery Management Council is currently deciding on the issue.

Maine lobstermen are required to meet a 100% harvester reporting requirement under Addendum 26 of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s lobster management plan by 2024.

Each technology serves a different purpose for fishermen and fishery managers. Adopting any new technology on a fishing vessel presents its challenges. Embracing the various EM, ER, and VMS solutions, however, can provide an opportunity to empower one’s own business operation with the specific advantages these innovative technologies can provide while fishing.

Lange Solberg wrote this article as a guest columnist for the February 2020 edition of LANDINGS Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance’s newspaper.

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