Momentum Grows for Electronic Monitoring of International Fisheries

Management bodies are developing standards to improve and harmonize oversight

Momentum Grows for Electronic Monitoring of International Fisheries
longline fishing vessel
Many longline fishing vessels, like this one, operating in internationally managed waters may soon use electronic devices to track catch and other activity, under measures that regional fisheries management organizations are advancing.
The Pew Charitable Trusts

Regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) are collectively responsible for managing most of the world’s highly migratory fish populations, including tunas, which are worth US$40 billion a year at the final point of sale. To ensure that these international fisheries are sustainable, RFMOs need reliable data on catch, bycatch, fishing effort, and compliance with regulations. Although human observers on board vessels have been the main source of key independent fisheries data, many fisheries still don’t have sufficient observer coverage to generate the data that scientists need to make informed recommendations to RFMOs.

COVID-19 has further complicated these efforts, as many RFMOs barred observers from vessels to protect worker health and slow the spread of the virus. Fortunately, this change has catalyzed efforts to fill those data gaps with electronic monitoring (EM) programs. EM systems—usually a central computer connected to onboard gear sensors and video cameras—allow authorities to monitor and record a vessel’s activity remotely. And properly designed EM programs ensure that the collected information can be effectively transmitted, analyzed, stored, and shared.  

As fisheries managers, scientists, and other stakeholders increasingly recognize the need to gain a more comprehensive look at fishing activity, EM offers a cost-effective solution to scale up monitoring coverage and ensure that future disruptions to observer coverage do not erode oversight and management of international fisheries.

RFMOs have begun developing EM standards

Because many tuna vessels fish in multiple jurisdictions, a harmonized approach to EM, implemented through a set of technical and operational standards, is vital to ensure that the information collected is accurate and can be consistently analyzed and shared among regulators and scientists. For example, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission is made up of more than two dozen members whose fleets are monitored by a combination of domestic and regional programs. For an EM program to be effective, all those monitoring programs must gather and share information in a coordinated way. 

Over the past year, four of the five main tuna RFMOs, which collectively oversee fisheries in close to 90% of the ocean, have made good progress towards developing EM standards. All four have either started the process or are planning to do so this year, and several are on track to adopt standards by the end of 2021. (See Table 1).

Table 1

Electronic Monitoring Program Progress at Four Tuna RFMOs

RFMO Progress to date To be completed in 2021
Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) In 2019, members directed the IATTC scientific staff to develop a work plan for drafting EM standards. The staff presented draft EM standards and program objectives at IATTC’s 2020 annual meeting. The Commission will host a workshop in April to discuss the draft EM standards and garner support from members for their adoption at the annual commission meeting, slated for August.
International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) In 2019, members directed the Standing Committee on Research and Statistics and the Integrated Monitoring Measures Working Group (IMM) to develop EM standards. The IMM is planning to draft EM standards for consideration at ICCAT’s annual meeting in November.
Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) In 2018, WCPFC began developing standards for an EM program. In 2020, members continued working on the standards and draft regulations. Members are planning to meet again this year with the aim of finalizing the EM standards for adoption at WCPFC’s annual commission meeting in December.
Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) In 2019, the IOTC commissioned the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation to draft EM standards, which were presented at the 2020 IOTC meetings.

Members have agreed to form a working group to discuss and finalize the draft standards so they can be proposed for adoption at the 2022 annual commission meeting.

How RFMOs can further develop and implement effective EM programs

To support the development of EM standards and broader EM programs, Pew developed a toolkit for RFMO members and interested stakeholders. These fact sheets highlight several key elements that RFMOs should consider, including:

  • Program objectives: Setting clear goals for the program will guide overall design and help determine coverage levels.
  • Stakeholder outreach, and communication: Coordinated engagement is critical throughout EM program design, development, and implementation to transfer lessons, develop solutions, improve transparency and garner buy-in.
  • Program structure and review: Whether RFMOs decide on a centralized RFMO-wide EM program or a collection of subregional and domestic EM programs, a regular review process is key to any EM structure to continuously improve the program.
  • Data collection, transmission, and storage: Standards should detail how data is collected, reviewed, transmitted, and stored.
  • Data review and privacy: EM program standards must also protect crew privacy and data confidentiality.

Additionally, seafood companies can help drive EM implementation by RFMOs and their member governments by committing to sourcing policies that promote better oversight and meet the growing demand for sustainability. By advocating for the development, adoption, and implementation of robust EM programs, fishers, processors, and retailers can help guarantee a consistent supply of sustainable fish for the global market.

The path forward

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone an even brighter spotlight on the urgent need to increase transparency, accountability, and resiliency in international fisheries management. In 2020, RFMOs demonstrated their commitment to these ideas by agreeing to prioritize the development of electronic monitoring programs. In 2021, they should continue this work to ensure that future shocks to the system will not stop their efforts to ensure a reliable, legal, and sustainable supply of seafood.

Jamie Gibbon is a manager and Raiana McKinney is an associate on Pew’s international fisheries project.

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