Start of a winter season haul-back aboard a Bering Sea pollock vessel. Corey Arnold photo

Projects in the Field: Implementing EM for Compliance Monitoring in the Bering Sea & Gulf of Alaska Shoreside Pollock Catcher Vessel Fisheries

Ruth Christiansen and

Published May 7, 2019
  • Projects in the Field is a series of independently produced articles profiling work supported by NFWF’s Electronic Monitoring & Reporting Grant Program, and is meant to raise awareness and support for these important initiatives. As always, your questions and comments are welcome.

    Over the course of 2019 and 2020, volunteer vessels from the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pelagic pollock fisheries are participating in a National Fish & Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) grant research project. This project was designed to first assess the efficacy of electronic monitoring for compliance with a full salmon prohibited species catch (PSC) retention requirement aboard pelagic trawl catcher vessels, and second, to identify key decisions related to operationalizing EM for compliance monitoring.

    Context: Salmon bycatch

    Although the Bering Sea (BS) and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) regulatory areas are managed differently and have different observer coverage requirements, federal regulations require that all salmon caught incidentally be retained. Strict Chinook salmon prohibited species catch limits are established by regulation in both areas.

    In the BS, salmon catch is determined by counting individual salmon at the shoreside processing facility (known as a census count). Shoreside processing facilities in the Bering Sea all have a dedicated plant observer with the vessel observer assisting when pollock deliveries are made.

    In the GOA, salmon catch is also accounted for at the shoreside plant with observer salmon census numbers extrapolated to the unobserved portion of the fleet. At shoreside facilities in the Gulf, there are no dedicated plant observers; the vessel observer moves into the processing facility when a pollock offload begins in order to census salmon.

    In addition to salmon retention requirements, “improved retention-improved utilization” (IRIU) regulations require that all pollock be retained when the pollock fishery is open to directed fishing , and up to the maximum retainable allowance be retained when the directed pollock fishery is closed, except in the GOA when the pollock trip limit of 300,000 pounds is exceeded (all pollock in excess of this limit must be discarded). These retention and discard requirements are currently monitored and recorded by human observers.

    Collectively, the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska (both Central and Western) pelagic pollock fisheries comprise of over 100 C/Vs with an available harvest of 754,814 MT of pollock in 2018. The two fisheries, however, differ in a number of ways. 

    *For 2019, BS TAC is 605,390 mt and the GOA is 132,454 mt for a total available TAC of 737,844 mt.

    The project

    Since 2018, when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) prioritized the development of EM as a monitoring tool for trawl vessels, participants in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska pelagic trawl catcher vessel (CV) pollock fisheries have been evaluating the use of electronic monitoring (EM) for compliance monitoring. In close coordination and collaboration with industry, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program, the Council, EM service providers, and third-party video reviewers, volunteer vessels will explore EM as an alternative to the regulatory requirement for human observers.

    For this project, there will be two categories of volunteer vessels:  1) new trawl catcher vessels that have never had an EM system, and 2) trawl catcher vessels that already have EM systems in place, which have been used for monitoring purposes in another fishery.

    Volunteer trawl catcher vessels that deliver to shoreside processors will be geographically representative of the BS and GOA and encompass those vessels with deck/handling configurations that fall outside traditional catcher vessel operations. Each volunteer vessel in the project requires:

    • A Vessel Monitoring Plan (VMP). The vessel-specific VMP outlines all project requirements and vessel operator responsibilities, documents the location and purpose of installed EM camera system components, and describes the specific catch handling and discard locations that the vessel can use.
    • Updated or installed EM systems, depending on which category the vessel falls into (described above).

    Under the first year (2019) of this project, volunteer vessels will continue to carry human observers and conduct fishing operations as they traditionally would, while simultaneously employing EM systems. Cameras will be strategically placed at key locations to ensure that all catch can be seen from the time the catch reaches the vessel until it is either put into the vessel’s hold or returned to the water. Hydraulic sensor pressures will be used to turn the camera video recording on and off in conjunction with fishing activity.

    An overview of the project steps that will be used to determine the feasibility and efficacy of EM as a compliance compliance monitoring tool (in place of human observers) aboard pollock mid-water catcher vessels. 

    Objectives and issues to be addressed

    Four objectives, developed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Trawl EM Committee, helped to determine the NWFW grant proposal and the push towards a regulatory EM program for pollock vessels in the North Pacific.

    • Objective 1: Improve salmon accounting – to provide stable salmon accounting against the PSC hard cap for Western Gulf and Central Gulf pollock vessels as well as the PSC performance standard for BS pollock vessels.
    • Objective 2: Reduce monitoring costs – to develop cost efficiencies and free up money for other priorities (e.g., EM coverage in the GOA pollock fishery could allow for an increase in observer coverage/days for other fisheries in partial coverage category).
    • Objective 3: Improve overall monitoring data for catch accounting and compliance – to explore innovative methods to account for PSC species and bycatch species that have the potential to limit compliance monitoring in the pollock fisheries, which requires high retention of catch; to explore innovative methods to account for protected species; and to achieve more comprehensive coverage.
    • Objective 4: Examine current regulatory retention and discard requirements as necessary to achieve Objectives 1-3.

    In evaluating these objectives EM Committee agreed on some key issues for initial investigation that will be addressed through the project.

    One issue includes determining whether EM systems will function reliably on the diverse types of pollock vessels functioning in the GOA and BS. This includes determining the appropriate method for recording compliance information, including the amount of time cameras should be turned on.

    Another issue is determining what type(s) of spatial information is needed and may be lost to the existing Observer Program. With EM for compliance only, it may be necessary to determine what will replace the information collected at sea for spatial biological information, marine mammal and seabird interactions (including the type of data resolution to be expected). 

    A third issue deals with identifying how observer duties at shoreside facilities will be addressed for both the full and partial coverage categories of pollock vessels. This includes identifying how shoreside observers will be funded and how requirements for data stream timeliness and integrity can be met.

    A final issue is identifying and estimating the operational and economic costs for vessels and shoreside processing plants associated with using EM versus carrying human observers for both the full coverage and partial coverage categories of pollock vessels. This includes costs associated with project coordination, data analysis services, EM equipment services, field technical services as well as those costs associated with video review and data storage.

    Industry incentives

    Incentives to use EM requires willing partners for the technology to work as intended towards monitoring goals, and incentives are a key mechanism to garner support, especially from an industry standpoint. Acknowledging successes achieved in other fisheries, the incentives to adopt EM for GOA and BS pollock fishery participants will naturally vary depending upon the specifics of the management program, specific data monitoring needs, and the unique operational characteristics of the vessels (e.g., vessel size class, use of tenders, port locations, etc.).

    Moving forward, some considerations for BS and GOA pollock fishery participants will be:

    • Cost Savings: The trawl catcher vessels that participate in the BS pollock shoreside fishery have been required to pay for 100% observer coverage since 2009. Pollock catcher vessels and their processing partners in the partial coverage sector for the GOA pay 1.25% of their ex-vessel revenue for their monitoring costs.
    • Improved Data Quality: In addition to the realized observer coverage rate of 20-28% for GOA pollock vessels, many of the smaller vessels deliver to tenders in the WGOA regulatory area with Chinook salmon PSC based on at-sea composition samples, not census counts at the plant. Extrapolated data and at-sea sampling can result in imprecise and highly variable Chinook salmon estimates that are not reflective of actual take.  
    • System Familiarity: Vessels that use EM in another fishery (e.g., West Coast whiting) may opt into EM as they are familiar with the technology and activating a system is simpler than arranging for a human observer.
    • Vessel Operations: Vessels that are less than 60 feet in length have limited space for accommodating an observer.
    • Improved Regulations: An EM program may result in regulatory relief from current discard requirements that result in crew having to take time to sort catch during the fishing operation.

    Next steps

    The BS and GOA pollock NFWF project is just getting underway and all stakeholder participants are anxious for the information to start rolling in. Over the course of the next several months, as data is received and analysis begins, stakeholders and members of the Trawl EM Committee will be working towards development of an Exempted Fisheries Permit (EFP) for the second year of the project. The EFP will focus on exemptions from regulations related to required discards and observer coverage. This will help clarify a pathway for management decisions related to EM-enabled compliance monitoring in a major U.S. fishery.

    Ultimately, pollock fishery participants would like to see the North Pacific Fishery Management Council initiate and develop an analytical package that would allow adoption of more targeted and efficient management for optimized-retention pollock fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.  

    The authors welcome your feedback, questions or comments about this project. Please use the comment form below or reach them directly via


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