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Monitoring The Catch Aboard Groundfishing Vessels

Regulations are stiff in the commercial fishing industry - and especially so for those who go after groundfish like cod and haddock. Now, one of the industry’s biggest players is accused of skirting those regulations for years - allegedly cooking the books and reaping big profits on illegally caught groundfish. As Brian Morris reports, that’s having a ripple effect on small, single-boat groundfishermen who play by the rules. 

Around the docks of New Bedford, people know Carlos Rafael as the “Codfather,” a legendary, self-made figure who dominates the city’s biggest industry. He manages a fleet of some 40 vessels, and also operates a fish distribution operation. Authorities raided his business in February, and federal officials allege he was changing documents - falsifying the types of fish he reported catching.

If true, Rafael’s boats have been thwarting the regulations that are designed to keep fish stocks at sustainable levels. Don Cuddy of the Center for Sustainable Fisheries says that taints the entire industry.

“When you have a vertically integrated organization like that, they’re in control of the fish from when it comes outta the water until it comes off the truck at wherever its destination happens to be,” Cuddy said. “That allows the person who has control of all of that to manipulate the system to his advantage.”

The government checks up on groundfishermen and what they’re bringing aboard their boats by using at-sea monitors on some of their trips. These are independent 3rd-party workers hired by the government to keep track of how many of each species of fish is caught, compared to how much a boat is allowed to catch.

Carlos Rafael is alleged to have changed the quota documents.  

“All of this took place after these at-sea monitors had packed their bags and gone home,” Cuddy said.

That raises the question of how effective those monitors are, if someone really wants to game the system.

“You know, I’ve heard talk now that this reinforces the need to have 100% monitoring on ground fish boats, but that’s simply not true, because at-sea monitors wouldn’t have detected this,” Cuddy said.

Rafael’s arrest comes at a time when the issue of at-sea monitors is becoming more contentious and uncertain. While the feds used to pay for the monitors, as of March 1st, fishermen have had to start footing the roughly $700-per-day cost.

John Bullard is Regional Administrator for NOAA’s Greater Atlantic Regional Fishery Office in Gloucester. His agency uses input from fishermen and scientists to set quotas and other regulations for the industry.  

“It’s not that we wanted the industry to pay,” Bullard said. “We understand the hardship that the groundfish industry is under, believe me.”   

Bullard explained that NOAA covered the costs of at-sea monitors for as long as it could. But that money is now gone. And he said the industry has had plenty of warning.

“We’ve been saying to industry, ‘You guys are gonna have to pay for this…not because we want you to, but because the money’s gonna run out.’ So this hasn’t been a sudden thing,” said Bullard. 

Most groundfishermen now must scramble to come up with ways to pay for at-sea monitors. Meanwhile, others are trying another option: electronic monitoring with video cameras.

Starting May 1st, 18 vessels will begin using only electronic monitoring under exempted fishing permits. Chris McGuire of the Nature Conservancy said the costs of electronic monitoring are high, but they could come down over time. 

“I think that it is not that many years away before you could begin using some type of face recognition…fish recognition-type technology. And if you could do that, you could shatter the cost,” McGuire said. 

Nicole Rossi is an electronic monitoring specialist at the NOAA Fisheries Sampling Branch in East Falmouth. She said the technology has lots of promise, but also a number of pitfalls. Hard drives need maintenance. Lenses can get smudged, making it more time-consuming for those reviewing the video.

Still, Rossi said, the potential upsides of electronic monitoring make it worth exploring further. 

“Certainly, image recognition would be the way to go. That takes out a lot of the error that we are seeing right now with the data that we’re getting, although there’s a cost to that,” said Rossi. “There’s a trade-off. The technology may be more expensive, but the reviewing would be less.”

Electronic monitoring could turn out to be the wave of the future, or an option with too many variables and hidden costs to be viable. Fishermen and regulators will sit down to evaluate the success of the experimental program when the upcoming fishing season ends.