In response to the global spread of COVID-19, several regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) have suspended the requirement that vessels fishing in their waters have independent observers onboard. RFMOs—multinational bodies that oversee many of the fisheries on the high seas—took the step to limit the potential exposure of fishers, observers, and inspectors to the virus.
While observers remain on shore, independent data on catch, bycatch, fishing effort, and compliance with conservation management measures will go uncollected, which means less reporting of key scientific and enforcement data and an increased chance that illegal fishing activity will go undetected.
In response to these decisions, 19 conservation organizations sent a letter to the heads of the five tuna RFMOs and the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean, detailing several actions that fisheries bodies should take to mitigate the loss of the observer data. These steps include urgently developing and implementing robust electronic monitoring (EM) programs. Such programs involve using cameras, gear sensors, and GPS to provide high-quality fishing data, cost-effectively, which allows remote review of fishing activity with minimal human contact and leads to more accurate self-reporting by fishing vessels.
To help the RFMOs design and implement an effective EM program, The Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned California Environmental Associates Consulting to produce a report that lays out the choices that fisheries managers face when considering EM. The report—Roadmap for Electronic Monitoring in RFMOs—discusses how those organizations should implement an EM where there is a wide range of vessels, gears, fishing locations, catch compositions, and international stakeholders.
The report includes recommendations on several key elements of an effective EM program design:
- Early outreach and communication with stakeholders to transfer lessons, develop solutions, and provide feedback.
- Clear program objectives and structure that specifies who is responsible for overseeing the EM program.
- Detailed standards for how data is collected, reviewed, transmitted, and stored.
- Protections for crew privacy and data confidentiality.
- A process to regularly review, refine, and improve the program.
In light of the impacts that COVID-19 has had on fisheries oversight, it is now clearer than ever that RFMOs need to embrace electronic monitoring. Although there may be challenges in developing an EM program, those issues are solvable. Using the report, RFMOs can develop well-designed EM programs to scale up coverage of their fisheries, increase transparency on the high seas, and be better prepared for future circumstances that might limit onboard observation.
Jamie Gibbon is a manager and Esther Wozniak is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international fisheries team.