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5 Questions: Claire Van Der Geest, Fisheries Consultant (and an authority on EM)

In this episode of 5 Questions, we talked with Claire Van Der Geest, former General Manager of the Fisheries Information and Services Branch at the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), and one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic persons I’ve ever talked to about Electronic Monitoring (EM). During her tenure, Claire oversaw much of the empirical data collection at AFMA from licensing, logbooks, and observer programs, and helped shepherded its digital transformation for programs like Electronic Monitoring and Electronic Reporting (ER). She also Chaired the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) EMandER Working Group, and Vice Chair for the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) EMandER Working Group. We talked to Claire in this podcast about: How she got involved in EM? What exactly is EM (for the layperson)? How is EM progressing at the RFMO level? The importance of engaging multiple stakeholders in EM programs? And lessons learned from implementing EM programs. Since this podcast was recorded, Claire has since moved on to her new role as a private consultant.


Q: What's your role at AFMA and how did you get involved in the world of Electronic Monitoring?

The General Manager of the Fisheries Information and Services Branch at AFMA, is responsible for the services that collect all of AFMA's empirical data, from logbooks and licensing to the observer program, electronic monitoring program, catch documentation records, port sampling – a whole range of services, that underpin the data collection to support for sustainable fisheries management across the commonwealth in Australia.

“How did I get involved in electronic monitoring – well, I landed the service delivery.” Claire was involved in a comprehensive review of the electronic monitoring program, which at the time was ongoing for 7 years, and they took a comprehensive review of the program. They looked at what people thought about what it was, what the services are and how it had performed, the benefits, etc., and really have a deep dive to ensure that the services continue to improve.

Q: What exactly is e-monitoring for the layperson?

Electronic monitoring can have multiple meanings. In fact, traditional vessel monitoring systems or VMS is a form of electronic monitoring; electronic logbooks, as opposed to paper logbooks, are a form of electronic monitoring; so we need to be careful when we think about what is truly Electronic Monitoring in a traditional context and a broad context. Increasingly there is a conversation about electronic technologies in fisheries that can be used to encompass all of these things, and so that enables us to use electronic monitoring in a very specific context – so in the context that we use electronic monitoring, we are thinking about having CCTV cameras on fishing boats. At the moment in Australia, this is a combined system with sensors on equipment that kick-start the cameras to record fishing activities or events of interest. These events could have high-risk implications for the fishery at large, or there are particular events that AFMA wants to verify what’s actually occurring on the water. “That’s what we think as being electronic monitoring, and that is the more global view of what electronic monitoring is, but it’s important to realize there is a broader context also.”

Q: EM has been at the center of many Regional Fishery Management Organization (RFMO) discussions, and with disruptions from the COVID-19 global pandemic and concerns about the level of human observer coverage in fisheries such as longline, what’s happening at the regional government level?

Monitoring fishing activities at sea has always been important. All RFMOs have had observer requirements to conduct at-sea monitoring of fishing events for a long time, but compliance with that has been relatively low for some parts of the fleet; where it is either difficult to place the observer due to the size of the vessel or the ability to accommodate the person onboard for the duration of the trip. It’s important to recall that we don’t implement tools for no reason – we are implementing onboard observers or electronic monitoring to collect and verify data of what’s going on at sea. We already have a requirement for onboard observer coverage at sea, if we can’t meet this requirement then we have an opportunity to use a different monitoring tool, and that other monitoring tool is electronic monitoring. Both onboard observers and EM have the same purpose, it's about verifying fishing activities at sea.

As part of her many roles at WCPFC, Claire also chaired the Electronic Monitoring (EM) and Electronic Reporting (ER) Working Group, where there have been engaged conversations to progress both EM and ER, but she notes that it is really a complex area to navigate.

The technology around the onboard observer doesn’t change, but the technology for EM we need to future-proof any standards since the technology is continuously changing. Privacy is also an issue because we’ll be collecting images of people's faces, which are highly sensitive issues. Progress needs to be pragmatic and needs to be iterative, and we need to work collaboratively to understand the differences between each jurisdiction – for example, what kind of privacy legislation exists in Australia and how we get that out in an RFMO. Both WCPFC and the IOTC have progressive discussions where Australia is helping to lead that discussion, the Commission for Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT) just had their initial conversations on EM. Other RFMOs that Australia is not a part of such as the International Commission for Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) are also having discussions on EM. At various levels, there is a really strong need to harmonize across RFMOs. All of the Chairs to the different groups are in dialogue on how to harmonize to the greatest extent so that we have systems on boats that can work across multiple RFMOs, and where countries are party to multiple RFMOs they are only implementing one EM program, and not more.

Q: It seems there are a lot of layers that necessitate coordination. Is there a space to engage stakeholders like the private sector, NGOs, and fishers, or is it purely top-down? What are the potential roles & responsibilities, and potential incentives?

If we don’t have stakeholders engaged we’re not going to have the best outcome that we can get. We definitely need industry onboard, we’re putting cameras/CCTVs on their boats, “I don’t have a camera above me in my workplace.” It’s important to have rigorous rules about how this data is being used “as it's capturing whatever I’m doing.” We as governments are really sensitive to what we’re actually doing, so we need to have clear rules and guidelines around what footage we need, and why is it targeting certain locations. “No, [cameras] are not in the galley.” It’s important that people understand the purpose of this tool and for the industry to be on board to have comfort with what we are doing. We definitely need EM tech vendors onboard because the technology is changing, and we need them to understand the need from a business perspective and from a fisheries management perspective, i.e. “what do we need this tech to do.”

We also need to progress Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) to reduce the amount of time needed to review and analyze video footage, as this is where the majority of costs for the program are located. We need to ensure existing algorithms for say “face-masking” are already included in the footage review software to protect the privacy of individuals.

In terms of incentives, it’s a tricky one. We’re at this point where we keep talking about it, but until vendors see government commitment they won’t invest, but unfortunately, governments won’t invest until they see the prices come down, we’re at a tricky impasse of chicken and egg. Where we actually all need to make a commitment, “Yeah, this is going to happen...” So how do enhance the need for collaboration, what do we need from a fisheries management perspective, go and make your tech do that for us, and we’ll continue to progress the development and implementation of this tool.

“We’re at this point where we keep talking about it, but until vendors see government commitment they won’t invest, but unfortunately, governments won’t invest until they see the prices come down – we’re at this tricky impasse of chicken and egg.”

It comes down to, “what is the data that fisheries management needs to effectively manage its resource? What tool is appropriate to collect that data?” In instances where observers are already collecting data effectively, we don’t need to replace them with EM, we can see them as 2 complimentary tools, and in that way, we can have the best of both worlds and have really good verification of what’s happening at sea, which is the whole objective.

Q: AFMA has been piloting EM for some time now (as far back as 2005!), can you share with us some key lessons learned, especially for those just beginning to launch EM programs?

It is complex, and people shouldn’t see it as a quick process. To get effective buy-in you need to take this in a collaborative and iterative way. There are a lot of moving parts, “spinning plates on top of spinning plates,” policy ramifications, and the ancillary legislation implications – engage collaboratively and understand it’s going to be a longer process.

Have a clear goal as to what you’re trying to achieve, whether it’s verifying data, biological samples, offsetting observer coverage, or whatever it is.

Collect really good baseline information such as cost and benefit information. We continue to improve and demonstrate to the industry what’s in it for them.

We have much more confidence now in our logbook data. When we compare and verify it to EM data it's highly congruent, and we’re very confident that our logbooks are accurate now. It’s because AFMA implements 100% EM coverage in the relevant fisheries, and we randomly sample that data – these two pieces are essential. It’s a huge win because we reduce uncertainty in issues like stock assessments and are more confident that our management will actually achieve its objectives. We are also able to implement more discrete management arrangements that target specific risks that we’re trying to mitigate which might be spatial, temporal, or vessel-level compliance.

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