The digital age of vessel reporting is on the line and the New England Fishery Management Council is trying to make sure fishermen under its purview answer the call.

The council has embarked on a management strategy that ultimately will require all commercial fishermen holding federal permits for New England council-managed species to file their vessel trip reports electronically rather than by the traditional paper reports.

"The goal is to go to a mandatory electronic reporting system," said Janice Plante, spokeswoman for the council. "But we also know that this is going to present a challenge for some fishermen used to filing paper reports. We're going to need an extended implementation period. NOAA Fisheries and both the Mid-Atlantic council and our council agree on that."

The New England council is joining the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council in working toward a fully digital format — known as eVTRs — for filing the vessel trip reports that provide regulators with catch data on every fishing trip, including each chart area, gear type and/or mesh size fished.

The current vessel reporting regulations require fishermen to complete their paper VTR prior to landing. Plante said that will continue under electronic filing. However, she said, the timeline for submitting the reports remains under consideration and will be finalized before the new regulations take effect.

"Those kinds of details are still under discussion," she said.

Plante also said the new digital reporting format will not demand additional information beyond what is contained in the current reporting system.

"There will be no change for reporting requirements except for the shift to electronic filing," she said.

NOAA Fisheries is on record with its intention to implement electronic vessel trip reporting across its full management landscape to reduce processing costs while improving the accuracy and efficiency of the reporting.

In June, the New England council voted "to engage in a joint omnibus action" with the Mid-Atlantic council for spiny dogfish and monkfish, which are co-managed by the two regional councils.

But the New England council went further, voting to expand the scope of the measure to include all commercial and recreational for-hire permit holders.

The New England council estimates the eVTR omnibus framework action will affect about 3,000 permit holders across both regional councils, the vast majority of which still file their reports on paper despite the fact the eVTR tool has been available since 2013.

The best available numbers for how many permit holders or vessels file their VTRs electronically show that it currently is a largely under-utilized resource.

According to Karson Coutre at the Mid-Atlantic council, 1,625 vessels filed VTRs in that region in 2018 and only 224, or 13.8 percent, filed at least one report electronically.

"We know a large portion still file on paper and that we have a ways to go," Plante said, adding that both regional councils are committed to organizing workshops, webinars and other informational events to educate and guide fishermen through the transition.

The Mid-Atlantic council has scheduled an informational webinar for July 23, beginning at 8:30 a.m., for all stakeholders.

Meanwhile, a six-member Fishery Management Action Team, comprised of staff from the two regional councils, GARFO and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, continues to hammer out the details for the omnibus framework.

Those details include alternatives "that would unify the current NOAA-mandated reporting deadline to either a 24-hour, 48-hour, 72-hour or weekly reporting deadline following the completion of a fishing trip.

The team also is surveying current NOAA Fisheries-approved eVTR applications and compatible devices.

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.