Electronic monitoring on fishing vessels / by Francisco Blaha

I meant to write a post on Electronic Monitoring (EM) for a while, since it is a topic I'm deeply interested in. I believe it holds the answers to some crucial problems we face in fisheries, but is to be tackle quite purposely and holistically, so based on various publications by friends and colleagues over the last few weeks, here it is.

At its basics, Electronic Monitoring (EM) largely consists of a "closed" video or photographic system integrated with a sensor system that can be used to view changes in fishing activity and to trigger or coordinate detailed viewing. Both (the recording and viewing) are "closed systems". The camera and sensor systems do not allow external or manual inputs nor manipulation of data.

My 1st contact with this technology was in Uruguay actually in 2011, where a progressive little company there (UREXPORT) installed an onboard video surveillance system for their vessels. A lot of positive results came from this technology, including better safety at sea, an enhanced vessel production, training need analysis and a better verification of operations, both at sea and at the harbor. One of the key interest was to avoid the skippers selling/offloading fish at sea to smaller vessels. So it didn't have much to do with regulations, but for own interest.

Interestingly my 1st employer in NZ (Sanford) is also working with this technology by own decision, but includes a regulatory component as well, footage of the system is linked below:


A couple of years ago, the a EM system was installed as a trial in a couple of Taiwanese longliners in the Solomons (blogged here and here about it) by my friend Malo. The aim here was to check their feasibility as a system for extending the observer coverage from the present pathetic less than 5% to a more representative number that could help us with the longline fishery, which we know now is the largest source of IUU fishing in our region.

A recent WWF funded study by Richard Banks (Banks R, Muldoon G and Fernandes V) dealt in depth with the cost benefit of the Fisheries Information Management Systems in FFA, so I quote some the introductory parts here.

The EM system consists of a control center, connected to an array of peripheral components including: 3-4 CCTV cameras, Vessel AIS or GPS receiver, winch and engine sensors and a communications transceiver. Videos are recorded at, recording day and night. Some of the systems also include sensors that transmit real-time positions, in much the same way as VMS, but additionally, record when there is a change in fishing behavior when the fishing gear is used. The application focuses on identifying a number of activities. Geo-referenced images allow vessel tracking and streaming sensor data. Sensor data transmission requirements are equivalent to VMS needs.

 Schematic of an Electronic Monitoring System

Schematic of an Electronic Monitoring System

Cameras may identify interactions with bycatch species, and are especially useful when recording bycatches of protected species. The viewed data can also provide a secondary source of data, for example, to validate catch and bycatch logsheets. Cameras can substitute for the observer requirements, largely where it may be impractical to deploy observers, or where there may be a threat to the security of the observers-on-board.

An EM can provide views of critical vessel areas e.g., gear deployment and retrieval, catch aboard, sorting, processing, storage and can potentially be used to replace or compliment the use of human observers (who are expensive, logistically complex and possibly bribable).

The current providers in the Pacific include:

  • Archipelago Asia Pacific video (4 cameras) and sensor recording system, currently applied by AFMA for use in the Australian Eastern Tuna and Billfish longline fishery (ETBF) and other Australian Commonwealth fisheries.
  • Satlink Sea Tube Lite, Spain, using a 3 video cameras EM system trialed by SPC/FFA in the Solomon Islands and presently under trial in Fiji in a wider program financed by the GEF and managed by FAO
  • Trident's camera system deployed on 3 domestic vessels, under a specific arrangement with two Fijian based companies, and with Sanford and mentioned before.  
  • One other provider, but not presently deployed in the Pacific tuna fisheries, is Marine Instruments, who provide the Electronic Eye (Spain).

Both the application by AFMA and the trials undertaken with Satlink in the Solomon Islands demonstrate the view of the project proponents that the system may meet the majority of the minimum data standards of the WCPFC Regional Observer Programme (ROP).

The exception is an on screen-measuring tool to calculate fish length. Measuring the length of the fish on deck was problematic, but a couple of ways are available, software tools (under the Satlink system) like in the image below.

Or, some markers are set at standard distances in the deck of the vessels and fish has to pass trough them, given by proxy the length of the fish

Live video footage through satellite transmission is not cost-effective at present, so footage is stored on a hard drive and sent monthly, or after each trip, to the provider for analysis. The Marine Instruments e-eye system does provide for an integrated Iridium modem, which allows for real-time data transfer. This also allows for less HD space needed for photos and longer periods at sea (6 month in position - linked to HD capacity).

The NZ Trident system is 3G based and data can be uploaded when the vessel is within cellphone range.

While there is provision for this facility in most systems, the cost of transmitting still frames, as opposed to live footage is still prohibitively expensive, and quite impractical because of the high volume required for transmission. That said, health and safety issues may warrant such a facility to be available

Due to the size requirements of video footage, large on-board data storage facilities are required. Cameras film at 5 frames per second (24-30fps is movie standard), and use between 60 and 100 MB per hour of footage. A four-camera setup requires 240 to 400 MB per hour , which results in around 6 to 10 GB for each full day of recording. 1280x720 @ 24FPS on board (HD quality) and minimum recording capacity of the system is 13-14 weeks.

 big brother is watching you

big brother is watching you

Due to these dataset sizes, video surveillance footage cannot feasibly be sent in real-time via a satellite feed. Instead, it is usually transferred directly from the hard drive after retrieval. The HDDs are changed very easily on board and can be examined at the control centre. Videos are stored onboard and encrypted. Videos are extracted locally from the encrypted HDD for analysis ashore by the owner or the Observer Program.

The process of hard drive data retrieval and footage review and analysis is currently relatively slow, taking a few days for dispatch, forensic recording, and then data viewing (~ 3-6 hours) depending on the recording requirements. Rapid shooter (every 3-5 seconds) still cameras may be a better solution for EM as this system use less memory space while offering a far better image resolution, and allows for real-time data transmission. Instruments e-eye system does provide for an integrated Iridium modem that allows for real-time data transfer, but in reality, is rarely used.

The EM application focuses on identifying many activities. Cameras may identify interactions with bycatch species, and are especially useful when recording bycatches of protected species. The viewed data can also provide a secondary source of data, for example, to validate catch and bycatch logsheets. (And this is good news for sharks, when the camera is there most sharks go back to the water)

The interest from the regulatory perspective, cameras can substitute for the observer requirements, largely where it may be impractical to deploy observers, or where there may be a threat to the security of the observers on board.

Within the WCPFC context, there have been dedicated meetings held over the last two years which have considered the application of ER and EM in the WCPO and noted the developments made by both Pacific Island countries and other WCPFC members. A formal working group was established in December 2014, and a meeting held in July 2015. The key risk for WCPFC, as is noted in the Terms of Reference for the working group, is the lack of documented policies and standards for these technologies, resulting in poor data coordination, increased data storage and transmission complexities, higher data security risk and increased long-term costs for the WCPFC.

The adoption by WCPFC of ER and EM standards is expected to support and accommodate those CCMs that have commenced implementation of a range of EM and ER technologies in their fisheries and will ensure that the Commission's databases and systems are ready to exchange electronic data in an orderly and efficient manner. The working group is expected to continue work in 2016 in the development and review of draft ER standards, as well as commence work on the proposed EM standards. Presently, a decision by the Commission to develop data standards will be separated from a decision by the Commission to require certain data/information to be submitted electronically. A notable omission, however, is the inability to sex and sometimes measure fish.

The goal of EM is to provide a cost-effective monitoring solution capable of collecting data for scientific, management, and compliance purposes. Surveillance cameras installed on vessels have proven to be effective at recording crew and fishing activities, which can be checked for compliance with fisheries regulations. As such, camera monitoring that is integrated with Electronic fisheries information solutions (EFIS) can provide a useful means of validating vessel catch and gear reporting (hook numbers, use of wire tracers on longliners or FAD deployment and setting on FADs during the prohibition period).

 cameras and sensors

cameras and sensors

The sensor data is especially useful in identifying steaming, setting and hauling. Sensors may also be inserted into hooks, or added to brails to weigh the fish on transshipment.

Cameras can also be an effective tool to monitor Health and Safety issues. A skipper can monitor crew activity from the deck. It may also be possible to detect any possible threat to observers, noting the loss of life of three PNG observers in the past four years.

EM has certain limitations, and cannot replace the roles of other data gathering techniques entirely. For example, current camera technology does not offer an affordable and reliable means of identifying the sex, age and species composition of a catch sample. Some observations are difficult to make from camera footage/images, even with human input and specialist knowledge. Furthermore, camera setups (unless extremely elaborate) will generally have ‘blind-spots,' where crew could discard bycatch, hide interactions with TEP species, or perform other IUU activities which could then go unreported.

As a result, while some see camera monitoring as a viable alternative to onboard human observers, others feel that on-board observers will remain necessary for the foreseeable future, at minimum to perform biological sampling and compliance monitoring where cameras are insufficient. The reality is that EM systems can compliment the role of human observers and enhance overall observer coverage most particularly in the longline fishery.

My friend Malo spend a lot of his time running a study comparing the data obtained from the cameras with the data from traditional observers working in the same boat, and the results are very encouraging, in one of his presentations he quotes that:

Very few differences were noted between the overall species composition of the main tuna species between the two observer types indicating that the E-Monitoring footage is providing sufficient information for identification to the species level. There are several examples described above where it is evident that the species identification and catch coverage from the E-Monitoring video analysis is better than the on-board observer data.

One benefit of E-Monitoring is that it provides a means of reviewing footage of the video repetitively and by a number of people (e.g. including experts in species identification). With more time, further review of the data compiled from these trials could be undertaken to resolve differences between the on-board observer's record and the original E-Monitoring video analysis record to determine where the problem lies.

Without going into deep details,  the table below show how the EM and the human observer compare side by side in one of the trials.

Furthermore, substantial advances are being made at the present regarding software tools (like the one below from the University of Washington)that cannot only identify length but as well species, opening the door for fully automated analysis of video data. In these cases, the human observer analyzing the footage comes only to resolve the events that the software hasn't. This technology has the potential of speeding up the analysis massively, allowing verified to enter the databases in near real-time at some stage.

As said before, there are a lot of positive prospects for e-monitoring: the technology is mature, cost can be recovered, it can be made a condition of licensing and country, region or RFMO level, vessels owners could try to get insurance cost discounts for having it on board, shark retention go rock bottom if the camera is there, the use of wire tracers gets documented, it expands the coverage to the high seas where no observer can/ want to go, and so on.

So the excuses are not there anymore, is a matter of making it happen... and people is working on that.