Boat Cams: What’s the Catch?

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    Mark Hager, right, and Anthony Lucia install a camera aboard a fishing vessel in Gloucester, Massachusetts. (AP/David Goldman)
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    Mark Hager reviews video footage from a camera on a New England fishing boat at his office in Portland, Maine. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
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    Analysts review the video footage in a lab to make sure fishermen are following the rules. (AP/Robert F. Bukaty)
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    Mark Hager, right, and Anthony Lucia install the electronics for a camera aboard a fishing boat. (AP/David Goldman)
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    Anthony Lucia works for New England Maritime Monitoring. Companies like that one use video cameras instead of onboard observers to monitor fishers. (AP/David Goldman)
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Mark Hager once counted every cod, haddock, and flounder hauled onto certain New England fishing boats. The tally was conducted to support good fishing practices. Today, Hager hopes to replace human fish counters with technology. But will the effort help or harm?

To manage fishing resources, scientists need reliable information on a myriad of ocean-going vessels. Onboard observers help ensure fishers follow the rules. The monitoring is meant to allow fish stocks to replenish. Fishers under others’ watchful eyes may also take greater care to catch fewer threatened species like sharks and turtles.

But too few trained people want jobs involving long, often dangerous stretches at sea. Today, there are only about 2,000 in-person fishing observers globally.

So Hager began New England Maritime Monitoring. His company uses high-resolution cameras, sensors, and other tech to provide a safe, reliable look into the fishing industry.

Hager watches hours of footage as crews catch and measure fish with long sticks. From his laptop, he can verify size and species. He notes whether fish are kept or flung overboard.

Despite e-monitoring’s advantages, only about 1,500 of the world’s 400,000 industrial fishing vessels use the technology. About 600 of those are in the United States.

A lack of international rules and standards—plus the expense of reviewing video—hampers widespread use of e-monitoring.

China is the world’s biggest seafood supplier. The fishing giant has a record of illegal fishing. With tens of thousands of fishing vessels, China has fewer than 100 observers.

In the United States, commercial fishers view the cameras warily. When electronic monitoring was new, government agencies promised the tech would not spy on fishers. Many hoped reliable data might help reopen areas closed to fishing.

Tuna fisher Scott Taylor embraced e-monitoring. “I really believed in it,” he says.

His enthusiasm ended when a federal agency used e-monitoring against him.

Video evidence shows Taylor’s boats fishing inside U.S. waters. Hours later, some gear drifted over an invisible line into Bahamian waters. The U.S. government insists Taylor’s boats pulled up 48 fish illegally. A $300,000 fine almost bankrupted Taylor’s business. He has abandoned his dream of passing his fishing business to his children.

E-monitoring has potential. But well-meant plans may add burdens to America’s skippers—and send more fishing overseas, out of view of conservationists and consumers.

“Until foreign competitors are held to the same high standards,” Taylor says, “the only impact . . . will be to put the American commercial fishermen out of business.”

Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. — Matthew 4:19

Why? Regulations and technologies can be very good tools for managing creation well. But overreach, global variations to adherence, and overdependence on tech can harm people if not carefully considered and applied with wisdom.