By KATHLEEN MCKIERNAN
NARRAGANSETT – New England’s fishing fleet may have to make room for Big Brother as a federally funded pilot program plans to use closed-circuit cameras on board to record the catch and replace human observers on fishing boats. The program has local fishermen up in arms over the extremes regulations have taken.
“We have fishermen regulated beyond control. They’re starving, not making any money and they want the fishermen to pay for [the cameras],” Richard Fuka, President of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance said. “I don’t know of any agricultural anything that has to have cameras on their tractors.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service project is designed to replace costly human observers that fishermen have to employ to count the fish to comply with regulations on catch size and limits with cheaper electronic eyes. The cameras would not completely replace the human observers fishermen are required to take out at sea, but it would reduce their need and save money, spokeswoman for the NOAA Fisheries Service in Gloucester Teri Frady said. Electronic monitoring will only apply to vessels that participate in federal ground fisheries.
Frady said the program is an experiment that started last year. It will go through three periods of 18 months to perfect the cameras’ use. It is currently in its second period.
“It is to see if and how electronic monitoring might be able to replace the kind of monitoring we do with humans,” Frady said. “No one is compelled to have a camera on board. It can’t be used as a one to one replacement.”
Currently, the government employs 80 human observers in the Northeast, who are private contractors. Observers monitor the accidental catch of protected animals and use samples to estimate fish populations.
Human observers were used for years, but after the region’s industry switched to a new system to regulate the catch, more observers were needed. Fishermen are under strict limits on how much they can catch and how much they can throw overboard, creating the need for better tracking of catch. Now, 38 percent of all groundfish trips require observers.
The government subsidized the cost of observers for the first two years at a cost of $8.8 million, but in 2013 the cost will be transferred to the fishermen, Frady said. The current cost to employ a human observer is $600 a trip, which includes sea time and data processing.
Frady said the cost to replace human observers with an electronic video system is still unknown.
Four cameras will be connected to a computer system that is triggered anytime fishing occurs on the boat, Frady explained. The cameras will be placed where fish come on board to be handled, sorted, or tossed over. The cameras don’t record voices.
However, many local fishermen do not see how electronic monitoring will save them money and see it as more of a sign of how little the government trusts them.
“This is ludicrous. It’s an invasion of privacy. I don’t know of anything in this world, whether a farmer, rancher, oil rig, who carries a camera on their shoulder. Do they not trust fishermen? They must not trust fishermen to count the fish. Why can’t fish be counted at the dock as they come in?” Fuka said. “Fishermen are providing a food source. They’re not terrorists.”
“It’s a reality show. It is that same kind of scenario they want to do to us to have a camera monitoring everything we do,” Donald Follett, owner of the trawler Cody based in Galilee in Narragansett said. “No one would enjoy having a camera on you at all times. It’s almost an infringement on your rights when they start monitoring you 24 hours a day.”
Follett said with all the new regulations, many fishermen have had enough and electronic monitoring is just the second knife wound.
“It used to be if you had enough ambition and enough nerve to go into this business, you’d buy a boat and equipment and went fishing. Now, there are all these new regulations. There are no new fishermen. Young people don’t want to get in because there’s no future in it,” Follett said.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing at all,” Tim Rakovan, a fisherman on the Anne Katheryn in Galilee said. “You have these cameras on boats in a tough environment. What if the camera goes awry and you have to cut your trip short? This boat is $1,500 a day to go out whether you catch anything or not and then what if the camera breaks?”
Since the project is only in its first 18 months, Frady said researchers are still working out the kinks. Researchers still have not developed a way to estimate a fish’s weight based on what is seen on film and how to identify species with different catch limits.