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Laine Welch: Cameras serve as sharp eyes in lieu of fishing boat observers

Laine Welch

Want to get onboard observers out of those small fishing boat bunks? The more fishermen who volunteer their vessels to field test new electronic monitoring systems, the faster the program will replace that extra body onboard.

Starting this year and for the first time, fishery observers are required aboard Alaska's long-line fleet of roughly 1,500 boats, most of which are well under 50 feet.

Observers have been aboard other types of Alaska fishing vessels for decades to collect data and monitor catches and bycatches; now scientists and managers want a better idea of what's coming up on those miles of hooks and lines, no matter what the vessel size.

Small-boat fishermen are clamoring to displace the observers with cameras, which are proving to be a good set of eyes. Electronic monitoring systems, or EMS, have been used on large Bering Sea boats for several years, and fishery managers have grappled with how to move cameras beyond compliance functions to culling reliable research data.

"The challenge becomes very different when you move from 'is industry behaving the way they are supposed to by regulation,' to looking at what is actually coming up on the lines, and trying to identify and measure it, and then trying to get the data from the video into the hands of a manager so they can use it to make decisions. And therein lies some of the interesting technical challenges," said Martin Loefflad, director of NOAA Fisheries' Monitoring and Analysis Division of the North Pacific Observer Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

That's where the fishing vessel volunteers come in.

"We are really dependent on the fishing industry to help us," Loefflad said. "We are looking for folks who will work with us to take it out on their boats and be creative. To help us understand their operations, and how the camera systems can best fit into those operations so it works for everybody."

It's a simple operation, according to Tim Carroll, CEO of Saltwater, Inc. in Anchorage, which has been providing fishery observers in Alaska for more than two decades. Test runs on electronic monitoring systems have been underway for a few years on long-liners fishing out of Homer and Southeast Alaska, with promising results.

"The main task for fishermen is to simply keep the camera lenses clean," he said.

"We have learned so much from them about how they are fishing and how we can make this system work for (fishermen)," Carroll said. "Things like camera placement, how to adapt to various power sources, how to position the sensors to be the least intrusive and have the least impact on fishing activity as possible."

Only a half-dozen boats have carried the EMS gear so far and many more are needed before a full-fledged EMS program can be launched.

Questions? Contact or call Saltwater, Inc. toll free at 800-770-3241.

Salmon watch

It's official: Alaska's pink salmon catch has set a record as swarms of fish continue to come in. By Aug. 16, the statewide catch was approaching 164 million humpies, breaking the 2005 record of 161 million.

As of the same date, the statewide harvest of all salmon had topped 211 million, meaning the 2013 Alaska catch also is on track to be a record-breaker. The highest catch on record is 221 million fish harvested in 2005.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Her Fish Radio programs can be heard on stations around the state or found at Contact her at

Laine Welch