Technology buoys fishermen devastated by cod’s collapse

By Emily Yehle | 08/10/2015 01:04 PM EDT

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — New England fishermen are struggling to make ends meet in the wake of the cod fishery’s catastrophic crash. Consider Captain Jim Ford. He once netted as much as $15,000 a day catching cod, but he’s lucky now to get $1,500 targeting flounder. From that, he must pay his two-man crew and buy fuel. And it doesn’t end there. Federal regulators want groundfish fishermen to pay starting next year for on-boat observers whose tab could hit $800 a day. “I’ll tie the boat up before I pay for an observer,” Ford said. Could technology offer another option?

Captain Jim Ford and his crew sort out fish from their first four-hour trawl of the day.

Captain Jim Ford and his crew sort out fish from their first four-hour trawl of the day. Photo by Emily Yehle.

NEWBURYPORT, Mass. — Jim Ford’s workday starts at midnight.

The fisherman attaches two giant nets to a metal frame, loads up his 52-foot trawler and glides out of the dark harbor here into the Gulf of Maine for a 14-hour shift.

The routine once earned Ford as much as $15,000 a day catching cod. But in the past five years, federal regulators have slashed the catch limit for cod by 95 percent and imposed a near-moratorium on harvesting the iconic species.


Ford now avoids cod, worried that a few good hauls could shut him down for the season. On a recent trip, he was targeting flounder, scraping the gulf’s muddy bottom in four-hour trawls and bringing up everything from skates and monkfish to crabs and seaweed.

"You have to stay away from the places where you catch fish," Ford, 44, said as he sat in his boat’s wheelhouse, surrounded by computer screens that tell him the water’s depth and the boat’s location in the black of night.

Through his window, he could see only the moon, bouncing on the horizon, and the occasional reflection of buoys marking shoals. But Ford pointed out the places he once trawled for cod on a screen above his head, filled with hundreds of colored lines from the trips he meticulously records.

Late last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service released an unexpected, midseason stock assessment estimating that the number of spawning cod is 3 to 4 percent of a sustainable population. Within months, cod fishermen — already operating under shrunken quotas — had to find a new species to target and build a business around.

And then another blow: By the end of this year, NMFS wants groundfish fishermen to pay for their own "at-sea monitors," the independent observers who collect data on bycatch and ensure fishermen follow the rules. Such monitors can cost $800 for each day on a boat, and NMFS requires one to be on 20 percent of trips, in addition to the observers NMFS pays to put on board.

Ford and other fishermen say they can’t afford it. Without cod, they say, their profit margins are slim.

Here’s Ford’s budget: On a good day of fishing flounder, he might make $1,500. His two-man crew gets 25 percent. Fuel costs about $250. And then there’s insurance, maintenance and other recurring expenses. Spending up to $800 on an at-sea monitor, he said, would make the trip not worth it.

"That’s the thing I can’t get past — is the cost of it," Ford said. "I’ll tie the boat up before I pay for an observer."

Is there another option?

Dying fish

Most agree that groundfish fishermen can’t afford the cost of human observers. NMFS and environmental groups have thus framed it as a short-term solution, to one day be replaced with electronic reporting and monitoring.

But the agency has been slow to roll out either.

Ford has been reporting electronically for almost a decade, without any change in observer coverage. On a recent trip, the observer seemed almost redundant.

Ford’s boat, the Lisa Ann III, is part of a study fleet that tests out technology and collects data for NMFS and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Most fishermen fill out a paper or electronic form at the end of a fishing trip, writing down the basics: species caught and discarded, date sold, offloading port. For discarded fish — or those thrown overboard — the estimates are particularly poor.

But Ford and 36 other captains use the Electronic Logbook System, entering the specifics of each haul into a computer program that goes right to databases at an NMFS science center. The time and location of each haul are verified through GPS and the boat’s vessel monitoring system, while a depth sounder and temperature gauge provide additional data.

Every time Ford hauls up his net, he begins a practiced routine of entering in the estimated pounds for species caught and discarded, adding to one of the largest databases of bycatch for the trawl fishery in the Northeast.

Now a decade in the making, the Electronic Logbook System has collected an enormous amount of data. In 2014, the number of trawls it captured was two-thirds that of the larger observer and at-sea monitoring programs.

But NMFS doesn’t use most of that information. In other words, Ford has told NMFS every species he has thrown overboard for years, but the agency estimates his discard from the data collected occasionally by observers and at-sea monitors.

While Ford estimates his discard by sight, observers must weigh and measure. On a recent Wednesday, Ford and his crew quickly separated bycatch from the flounder, sliding over bins of monkfish, lobster and various bottom-dwelling creatures to an observer.

The fishermen were finished within 30 minutes. By then, the flounder was on ice under deck, bright-orange jackets were hung in the wheelhouse and the four-hour wait for another haul had begun.

At the 40-minute mark, Ford, back in his captain’s seat, gestured to the observer, still on deck weighing fish in various baskets and making notes in a waterproof notebook.

"I think my biggest problem is having fish on board that are dying," he said. "He still has two boxes of discard left. The fish are dead. 100 percent."

But for the observer, it’s a Catch-22. While the fishermen grumble about how long they take — and the sometimes heavy, awkward equipment they carry — observers are expected to be accurate. Whatever they measure for discards will count against that fisherman’s bycatch quota, as well as others who fish in the same area.

The observer on Ford’s boat was thorough but not nitpicky, drawing off more than two years on the job. He skipped the crabs, which have been experiencing a boom, but carefully weighed other species. The whole process took him about an hour.

For his part, Ford was friendly, accommodating — and openly grumpy about the observer’s presence.

Though it’s against the rules, some fishermen do not provide a bunk for observers, forcing them to curl up on the floor. But Ford knocked out a cubby specifically for observers; his cabin originally had only one wide platform for his two crewmen to take naps.

"That was nice of you," the observer told him, upon hearing it.

Ford shrugged off the compliment: "I mean, you got to have a bunk to sleep in."

"I’ve slept on the floor for five days before," the observer said. "It doesn’t happen often … but for multiday, it sucks."

‘Screwed’ and skeptical

The real sticking point, to Ford: The observer’s data on discards aren’t more accurate than his own.

After analyzing the data that stretch back to 2006, NOAA’s Northeast Cooperative Research Program has found that the data in the Electronic Logbook closely follow the data collected by observers. The logbook data actually are on a finer spatial scale, showing not only what is caught but also the length of the tow track and the temperature at the bottom.

John Hoey, director of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center cooperative research program, thinks the data are now robust enough for additional scientific uses. His office submitted draft reports to include the Electronic Logbook data in recent stock assessments for yellowtail and scup.

It wasn’t successful. Hoey is optimistic it will happen, but he acknowledged that getting the data used for fishing regulations and the analyses that inform them — such as stock assessments — is difficult.

"It’s hard to change management programs and stock assessments that are built on long-term time series," he said. "Yet many assessment and management analysts are coming in and saying, ‘We want more and more detailed fishing data in there.’"

If there’s a person at NOAA who’s trusted by groundfish fishermen, it’s Hoey. In the 1990s, he was a senior scientist for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group for the seafood industry. Now he acts as go-between at NOAA — someone who can work with both fishermen and scientists.

His office is in a trailer on the campus of the University of Rhode Island, on a small hill that overlooks Narragansett Bay. On a recent visit, it was filled with piles of papers and gadgets that Hoey was happy to show off to visitors.

In an agency that can seem like a faceless bureaucracy to fishermen, Hoey is talkative and approachable. That’s the point: NOAA established the cooperative research program partly to improve a tension-filled relationship with Northeast fishermen. If fishermen work with scientists, the theory goes, they will be less skeptical of the science.

But some fishermen consider Hoey and his program almost independent of the agency.

"It’s the people that we’re dealing with that we trust," said Mark Phillips, who has been fishing for more than 40 years. "I know that John is trying to do the best he can, and I know the people he’s got working for him are trying to do the best they can."

As for the rest of NOAA?

"Would you trust someone who has screwed you nonstop your whole life?" he said. "Thirty-five years ago, I thought it was different. I don’t anymore."

Fishing for data

Speaking with fishermen of the study fleet can feel like an exercise in contradictions. They don’t trust NOAA’s data, but they are also proud of the role they play in helping science.

Boats in the fleet get reimbursed for equipment and receive a monetary incentive worth a few thousand dollars. In return, they not only use the Electronic Logbook but also participate in various research projects. In one upcoming study, for example, Hoey’s staff will use four study fleet boats to conduct research that could help decrease river herring bycatch.

"The guys that are in study fleet believe in study fleet," Phillips said. "That’s why it works."

NOAA does use some of the data from the logbooks. For one, the data provide a more accurate picture of where each stock is caught.

Most fishermen fill out a form telling the agency where they fished, using a grid that maps the ocean in boxes. But a boat in the study fleet reports exactly where it fished, through the Electronic Logbook and the GPS connected to it. NOAA combines data from both.

Hoey is most excited about the potential for temperature gauges that measure the ocean bottom. His office plans to have them on about 70 boats by October, including those already in the study fleet. The gauges report bottom temperatures directly to NOAA, combining them with data on what the fishermen caught.

The result: data that can be used to help predict how fish stocks react to climate change. Oceanographers at NOAA are already integrating it into models.

Hoey’s office is also using the data to produce maps aimed at helping fishermen avoid stocks with low catch limits. Such precision has become more important, he said, as fishery management changed to catch shares from days at sea. Catching the targeted species — with as little bycatch as possible — is the main objective.

"Their fishing business practices are based on their knowledge of how the world works," Hoey said. "The fish communities are moving, and the fishing communities have to adjust."

But frustrations remain on how NOAA uses — or doesn’t use — the data for oversight.

The discard data from those logbooks match up with observer data 85 to 90 percent of the time on trips where an observer is present, according to Hoey. Even those that don’t match up are not necessarily far apart; discards for some species are in small amounts, so the difference could be a matter of a few pounds.

On Ford’s boat, the observer compared his data to Ford’s estimate when he was done, as a check to ensure his numbers weren’t far off.

Ford recalled that a previous observer had numbers so different, he checked his scale when he got home and found it was calibrated wrong. He called Ford and told him, prompting an uphill — but ultimately successful — battle to replace the observer’s data with Ford’s entries in the Electronic Logbook. It’s the only time NMFS has used his data for that regulatory purpose, according to Ford.

On the recent trip, no such problems emerged.

"You have an amazing eye for weight," the observer said, citing near-identical results.

Kids on boats

The observer spoke freely to a reporter on the trip. Dressed in a T-shirt, shorts and Vans sneakers, he appeared at ease on the boat. When he wasn’t sleeping or working, he was perched on a corner seat in the wheelhouse, chatting with Ford.

But after he disembarked, his superiors at MRAG Americas — which holds a multimillion-dollar contract with NOAA to provide observers — told him he was not cleared to speak to the press. In an email, he said he was "not prepared to have a reporter on board." He asked that his quotes not be included; this article includes only his conversations with Ford.

Observers and at-sea monitors are often college graduates looking for a resume-building job. Their schedules are unpredictable; some trips are 12 hours, others are two weeks. Once on a boat, they rely on the hospitality of fishermen, many of whom don’t want them there.

Even Ford gets in a passive dig, in the form of a sign above the cabin that says, "Annoying Observers Will Be Sent to the Observatory." His wife, a middle school teacher, made it, along with a twin sign above the observer’s small bunk that labels it as the aforementioned Observatory.

Tensions have only risen since 2010, when NMFS drastically increased the number of watchdogs on the boats of groundfish fishermen through the At-Sea Monitoring Program. Fishermen now have someone on their boat for 24 percent of their trips.

The prospect of paying for most of those trips, at a cost of millions each year, hasn’t improved the animosity.

NMFS has suggested another option: States could use fishery disaster funds they received last year to fill the gap. Out of $75 million Congress doled out to fisheries in economic distress, $33 million went to New England states to help the groundfish fishery (Greenwire, May 29, 2014).

Some fishermen aren’t crazy about that idea, either.

"You can’t take job relief money and use it to fund observers," Ford said. "That’s a slap in the face."

The Environmental Defense Fund sees it differently. The advocacy group has pushed NMFS to use electronic monitoring, placing cameras on vessels in place of people.

Until then, states should use the disaster funding, said Matt Mullin, EDF’s Northeast regional director.

"I think that’s the crux of the problem right now. The current human observer program in New England is very, very expensive and only monitors 20 percent of the trips. Fishermen can’t pay for it, and the government can’t pay for it out of the current budget," he said, asserting that the agency needs to transition to electronic monitoring. "In the interim, use whatever dollars we have. Because otherwise, what are we going to do?"

The problem is complicated by the plight of Gulf of Maine cod. With the recent stock assessment showing the population at a historic low, NMFS is worried more than ever about unreported discards.

The industry is at a crossroads, struggling to both find profitable stocks and pay for expensive oversight.

Big Brother?

When Ford sets out on his daily trip, he is alone; only a couple of other boats dock in Newburyport, which sports a quaint downtown where tourists can buy fishing-themed souvenirs. Throughout the Northeast, the number of groundfish fishermen has decreased, and those who are still around are taking fewer trips, partly because of the limits on cod.

More fishermen will exit if they also have to pay for expensive at-sea monitors. But could the Electronic Logbook help? The system is cheap: a $1,000 laptop, $600 for installation and up to $120 a month for data.

Both Ford and Phillips expressed skepticism about launching the logbook beyond the study fleet, citing the need for training and the fact that it is more labor-intensive than the paper forms.

Mullin similarly emphasized its limits.

"The whole point … is to collect timely, accurate and verifiable data," Mullin said. "Electronic reporting is more accurate and timely, but it’s not verifiable."

Jim Ford
Captain Jim Ford on the deck of his 52-foot trawler in the Gulf of Maine. | Photo by Emily Yehle.

That’s where electronic monitoring comes in.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association is hoping to lead the way. It is in the third year of a pilot project on electronic monitoring, with the aim of getting NMFS to accept its use in lieu of at-sea monitors by next year.

Ben Martens, the association’s executive director, described the system as a potential solution to a multifaceted problem.

Observers and at-sea monitors currently cover only 24 percent of trips, leaving 76 percent of trips completely unmonitored. That makes conservationists nervous. Fishermen have a strong incentive to throw away cod; it’s hard to catch other groundfish without bringing it up, and any catch brings them closer to reaching their quota and getting shut down.

With electronic monitoring, fishermen would always have a camera on their boat. While they know when observers are on board, they would not know what parts of the video would be viewed. Martens asserts that 10 percent of the video would need to be audited in a "trust-but-verify" system.

"It always blows my mind that we’ve decided that it makes more sense to put what are essentially kids on boats and go track fish discards," Martens said, later adding: "The goal of our project hasn’t been another pilot project. It’s been implementation."

But it’s limited. The system is best for gill nets and longlines, where fish are brought up individually or in small batches. For trawlers like Ford’s, it is less effective, since such boats dump large amounts of fish on deck.

And while installing the system is relatively cheap, paying people to sit at a computer and watch hours of video is not. If NMFS decides a 10 percent audit is not sufficient, the cost could become a problem.

Then there’s whether fishermen will accept the idea of a camera on their boat. Phillips called himself "petrified" of the idea.

"I don’t like the idea of it," he said. "One of the issues I have with electronic monitoring is that we’ll just review and review and review until we find something we can attack the fishermen for."

Martens has modest goals: Get NMFS to allow a sector of groundfish fishermen in Maine to use it. But the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance also wants to put it on the groundfish boats in a sector that includes 63 boats and accounts for 17 percent of the at-sea monitoring trips.

The high cost of at-sea monitors — and NMFS’s plans to hand off the cost to fishermen — has "made this good idea a great idea," said John Pappalardo, the alliance’s executive director.

He downplayed the potential challenge of getting fishermen to agree to cameras, pointing out that boats are already tracked through the vessel monitoring system.

"The only thing these camera do that’s new is take a human being off your boat and put a camera on your boat," he said, later adding: "I think there’s enough pressure nationally to make this an option."