The issue of at-sea monitoring seems to pervade almost every current discussion of the future viability of the Northeast groundfish industry, including the distribution of federal fishing disaster money and the ongoing battles over who will  pay for the monitoring program going forward.

NOAA Fisheries this week stepped further into that maelstrom with a largely internally generated report that focuses on cost comparisons between the current manual system of at-sea monitoring and electronic monitoring. It also released an independent review of the NOAA report.

The conclusions?

Electronic monitoring might be a more cost-effective option. Maybe. In some cases. Depending on the fishery and the goals and design of whatever electronic monitoring program ultimately is utilized.

The NOAA report, generated with the assistance of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and other non-governmental organizations, concedes a wide array of assumptions — it is based on hypothetical Northeast multispecies and Atlantic herring and mackerel fisheries — and accepts that it is merely “a starting point for developing future [electronic monitoring] program designs.”

“Our findings suggest technology, such as on-board camera systems, may be most cost-effective for monitoring compliance, such as in the midwater trawl herring and mackerel fisheries,” wrote the authors of the NOAA report. “Our report also shows that human observers proved more cost-efficient than electronic technologies at catch accounting, such as required for groundfish sectors.”

In comparing the costs associated between the two different types of monitoring in the hypothetical groundfish sector, the report estimated a total at-sea monitoring cost of $632,400, assuming 510 observer sea-days at $710 per day, with shore-side costs of $530 per sea-day and an 18 percent fleet coverage rate. It pegged the total at-sea monitoring costs per trip at $1,757 for the sector.

The report estimated that electronic monitoring costs providing 100 percent coverage would cost the sectors $601 per trip, compared to $316 per trip for manual at-sea monitoring.

It also estimated the total electronic monitoring startup costs will run to $1.75 million for the hypothetical groundfish sector, or $87,475 per vessel.

Those costs might be mitigated by a variety of changes, according to the report, such as having vessel operators mail in the hard drives containing the video monitoring rather than hiring technicians to retrieve them. Another change could be limiting documentation of all discards of all species and measuring the length of the fish for the large-mesh multispecies only.

“A sufficient level of review to determine that no unreported large mesh multispecies were discarded could further limit costs,” according to the report.

The independent review, recognizing the numerous assumptions that went into the NOAA report, tried to put the report’s findings into perspective.

“Finally, it is important to note that the (NOAA) paper is the first step in a process to determine the most judicious and cost-effective way to collect discard data necessary to manage Amendment 16 sectors,” wrote the author Darrell Brannan.

Brannan added the paper should provide sufficient information for the various fishery management councils and NOAA Fisheries “to have informed discussions with interested stakeholders.”

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

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