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Electronic monitoring finally catching on among Alaska's commercial fishermen

Automation is coming to Alaska fishing boats in the form of cameras and sensors that track what's coming and going over the rails.

Starting next year, electronic monitoring systems can officially replace human observers as fishery data collectors on Alaska boats using longline and pot gear. Vessel operators who do not voluntarily switch to electronic monitoring remain subject to human observer coverage on randomly selected fishing trips.

The onboard observer requirement originally covered vessels 59 feet and longer, but was restructured in 2013 to include boats down to 40 feet and, for the first time, was applied to the halibut fishery.

"Those smaller vessels have had a hard time accommodating human observers," said Bill Tweit, vice chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees the program.

Smaller boats also had a hard time with skyrocketing observer costs under the restructured program, which in some cases went from less than $300-$400 per day to more than $1,000.

Starting in 2013, 15 pot cod boats aligned with the Homer-based North Pacific Fisherman's Association and Saltwater Inc. of Anchorage field tested electronic monitoring in the Gulf of Alaska.

"We saw EM as a tool that could address many of the issues we had with the observer program. It has moved at a glacial pace, but it is finally moving and much more needs to be done," said Malcolm Milne, association president.

The monitoring systems were purchased with funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and eventually proved they could track and identify more than 95 percent of species required for fishery management decisions.

"Overall, the reception of EM by participants in the pot cod fishery has been positive," said Abigail Turner-Frank, project coordinator for the association. "Fishermen have expressed their enthusiasm about the potential cost effectiveness, not having to worry about an extra person onboard and the utility of the cameras showing hi-def deck views of their crew and gear while fishing."

Testing electronic monitoring on longline vessels has been ongoing since 2011 via the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, in collaboration with the fish and wildlife foundation, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle and Archipelago Marine of Canada. Trials showed the costs, including data analysis, were $198 per day for six Sitka vessels and $332 per day for Homer boats.

The electronic monitoring system most often used costs about $3,500 for hardware and installation, plus an additional $1,000 a year for data transfer fees from Alaska to Seattle.

Nancy Munro, president of Saltwater Inc., suggests that the data review could be done in Alaska to "create a tighter feedback loop." She also strongly suggests that many fishery observers can be integrated into the electronic monitoring as data analysts to "keep their talent and experience in the fisheries."

Some 450 observers work in Alaska's fisheries.

The public has until May 22 to comment on the electronic monitoring program to federal policymakers.

"We want to hear how well we did at tailoring this and secondly, we want to hear what their next priorities are," said Bill Tweit.

Spring fishing

More Alaska fisheries get started during the spring while pollock, cod, ocean perch, rockfish, flounders and many more are ongoing throughout the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Here are some highlights:

*In Southeast, the roe herring fishery in Sitka Sound wrapped up on March 29 after seiners took the 14,600-ton quota after four openers in about one week.

*The golden king crab fishery wrapped up throughout the Panhandle with some of the lowest catches in 17 seasons. Pot pulls at Icy Strait and other northern areas yielded about half the 20,000-pound limit for the two regions.

*Lingcod opens in Southeast waters May 16 for jig and troll gear with a 310,700-pound harvest limit.

*In Prince William Sound a sablefish fishery kicks off April 15 with a 117,000-pound quota.

*That same day, a trawl fishery begins for sidestripe shrimp in the Sound with a catch limit of just under 113,000 pounds.

*Kodiak's herring season begins April 15, with a lower harvest cap of 1,645 tons this year. Managers said they expect an uptick in the herring stock of small 3-to-5-year-old fish. Thus the smaller quota.

*Halibut catches are picking up slightly with more than 1 million pounds out of the 18-million-pound limit taken. Landings are down 27 percent from the same time last year, but prices are up 10 percent to the $6.50-$7 range.

*The Bering Sea snow crab fishery should wrap up its 19 million pound catch quota any day.

Hope for climate change

A new book that is part fast-paced adventure, part philosophy and provides a road map to climate change "hope spots" is drawing rave reviews.

"I am a firm believer that you have to find reasons for moving the needle, and being hopeful that you can still make a difference in this world," said Kate Troll of Juneau, the author of "The Great Unconformity: Reflections of Hope in an Imperiled World."

Troll draws on her 22 years of experience in climate and energy policy, elected office, coastal management and fisheries. As a former director of the Southeast Seiners Association and United Fishermen of Alaska, she was instrumental in getting 100-foot buffers along salmon streams in Southeast.

"That was a monumental step taken in an era of large-scale clear cutting. Now we have those streams protected and it serves as a model for other areas. It's become the norm, and that's key to the sustainability."

One way to seed "hope spots," she said, is "using our wallets" to support sustainable fisheries. Another already is yielding big results.

What makes this book unique and fun to read is that Troll combines her messages with amazing adventures.

"I'm a firm believer that if I can tell some really entertaining stories, the messages stick a lot better," she said. "You're climbing Denali with me, we're running wild rivers, we're kayaking among whales, we're climbing Mount Kilimanjaro."

Troll will do a book signing at the UAA bookstore 5-7 p.m. April 24.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at