NOAA introduces new electronic monitoring tablets to increase observer data accuracy

A fisher using an OPTECS system.

NOAA Fisheries observers on the U.S. West Coast are moving to the use of tablet-based electronic systems to gather data on fishing vessels, replacing the outmoded pencil-and-paper system previously used.

Two of these systems are the ORCA 1 and 2 systems used by the West Coast Regional Observer Program and OPTECS system used by the West Coast Groundfish Observer Program. 

Eric Brasseur, an electrical electronics technician, who helped to design, implement, and teach observers from the West Coast Groundfish Observer Program how to use the tablets, said the tablet system brings numerous benefits to the fishery.

“With the tablets, the observer can get home, finalize the trip, and submit it directly from their house, which then goes instantly to our database. We have almost real-time reporting for that with an automated procedure that runs every night off for catch shares or [individual fishing quota] trips that are submitted," Brasseur said. "We still have to edit and correct our data, but sampling is more direct and much cleaner because you can get the answers back as soon as they're back on shore and not days or weeks later, when the information is less fresh."

The West Coast Region Observer Program covers fishing for migratory species using drift-gillnets, deep-set buoy gear, pelagic longlines, and set gill-net fisheries. This program was started in 1990 using paper systems until development of the deep-set buoy-gear fishery targeting swordfish needed to collect data on a new gear type. West Coast Region Observer Program Operator Charles Villafana said that presented an opportunity to develop an electronic reporting system, which it did in partnership with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and the developer, the subcontractor Data Incorporated.

“You’re improving the life of observers, the data process, accuracy and quality of data, speed of data coming in, and it’s also an improvement to the fishermen. With these efficiencies, it lets us do more, allowing us to spend more time and resources on other reporting and data collections,” Villafana said.

The resulting program was the Onboard Record Collection Application (ORCA) 1, which after being implemented and going operational, has minimized duplication of effort and repetition for observers, ultimately reducing transcription errors in data, Villafana said. ORCA 2, which is being developed to combine ORCA 1 software to work for both the current fisheries and the Pacific Islands Regional Observer Program, covering pelagic longline fisheries, is now in the live testing phase, he said.

“Observers are good at their job, but there's a lot of possibility for transposition errors, so positions in particular are four to five digits long. Then they go and type it into the computer, and they accidentally swap numbers or forget a number. Somebody must flag that error when we're doing analysis and go back to the paper and figure out where it went wrong. We’re trying to reduce the number of times somebody has to look at something, write it down and copy it, because we found that that seems to be where most of our errors generate,” Villafana said.

Brasseur described another digital system under development, the Observer Program Technology Enhanced Collection System (OPTECS), which will also enable fully electronic fisheries monitoring via the input of data into a handheld device by fishermen themselves. 

The OPTECS system began with the implementation of a catch-share program on the U.S. West Coast in 2011, requiring quick turnaround for quotas on discarded and retained species. Digital tablets equipped with the OPTECS system were initially deployed on vessels in 2019 and now in widespread use. Brasseur said the system is actively being improved to ensure the software is usable on any device, not just those capable of running Microsoft Windows.

Brasseur and Villafana described initial barriers to implementation included ensuring the tablets could withstand saltwater, sunlight, glare, battery life limitations, and other issues related to the harsh environment onboard fishing vessels. User error in running and maintaining the devices, such as ensuring the tablet's ports are closed and checking and cleaning batteries, remains an issue, he acknowledged. Additionally, developers continue to improve the flow of the program to optimize its efficient use by observers, and to catch errors such as double key-taps.

But despite these developments in an industry that has typically been slow to adopt technology, Brasseur and Villafana said human observers will always be needed to collect biological data cameras can’t catch.

“We collect genetics from a lot of our fish that we access, and many highly migratory species we don’t know very much about. Some we don't even know where they spawn, what the age and growth rates are, reproductive status and much more," Villafana said. "With biological sampling, we can sort out which population we're fishing on. From stable isotope analysis  of bone or genetics from fin clips, we can look at those samples and gain a better understanding of the fish."

Photo courtesy of NOAA


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