Cooperation Improves Regulation

Gear stowage workshop

BOSTON - Members from the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, New England Fishery Management Council and commercial fishermen wrap a snow fence around a mock trawling reel at the Northeast Regional Fisheries Training Center in Cape Cod, Mass., Nov. 29, 2011. The group met to test solutions for displaying stowed gear aboard a trawling vessel while underway. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson.

Written by Petty Officer Rob Simpson

Thousands of New England commercial fishermen take to the Atlantic waters throughout the year to catch bounties of fish by pulling nets behind their vessels. Called trawling, the nets are held open underwater and catch schools of targeted fish that will eventually end up on the plates of hungry consumers across the globe. Enforcing the methods and tools they use as well as the times of the year fishermen are at sea hunting for a particular species of fish falls on the shoulders of the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard.

When it comes to fisheries enforcement, the duty of Coast Guard pilots is to fly over fishing grounds and identify trawlers that are in approved areas. More importantly, they need to know if the fishermen are actively fishing or are just transiting through an area, which can be a difficult to see from small windows at great speeds.

“We can fly at about 180 knots at our slowest, and that’s still pretty fast to identify a vessel in one pass,” said Lt. Cmdr. Curtis Brown, an HU-25 Falcon aircraft pilot at Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass. “As a pilot, I’ve only got a six-inch screen to see vessels on. Our sensor operator has a better picture in the back, but sometimes it’s still hard to tell.”

When not in use, the fishermen’s trawling nets are wrapped around a reel on the vessels stern; its one of the only indications that a boat isn’t actively fishing an area. This is important because pilots like Brown need to know if they’re fishing or not in a closed area.

Currently, fishermen are required to cover their net reels with a tarp when they are not actively fishing, or transiting to another area. But the unpredictable and often foul weather at sea can not only tear and rip the tarps from the reels, but taking the time to wrap the large covers can endanger the fishermen’s lives.

To combat the confusion and clarify the process, members from the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement, the New England Fishery Management Council and commercial fishermen met recently to discuss possible solutions and demonstrate practical applications to display stowed fishing gear while underway.

“When you write regulations, you don’t always see the realistic use of the enforcement and practicality,” said Meggan Engelke-Ros, an attorney with the NOAA Office of General Counsel for Enforcement and Litigation “Our overall goal is to help define the regulations and create a level playing field so we can balance safety and practical concerns.”

One of the possible solutions brought to the table during the meeting was to use a commercially available plastic snow fence. The bright orange netting is highly visible and could be wound up around the spool without having to climb over the sides of the fishing boat’s stern.

During the discussion, members realized that the fencing could be dangerous if it were swept overboard. Animals and sea life could be snared in the fencing, similar to how six-pack plastic ring can get caught around an animal’s neck.

An immediate solution was brought up by members of the NEFMC; by using the “cod end” of an old net that most fishermen already have and are brightly colored.

“I’ve got a garage full of this stuff,” said Rodney M. Avilia, a commercial fisherman from New Bedford, Mass., and member of the NEFMC. “It’s a simple fix that could work safer than what we currently have. It’s material that we already have, especially when we’re talking about guys that are just getting by trying to survive.”

Members of the NEFMC voted to test the new idea by coordinating a day in the near future to use the reel covers and have Coast Guard pilots fly over to try and identify covered spools.

The meeting was more than to just find a solution to a single problem; it was to help build relationships between the fishermen that make their lives from the sea and the officers charged with ensuring that they do it legally and safely.

“We need regulations that are operationally enforceable with dockside inspections, at sea and from the air,” said Engelke-Ros. “It needs to be easy to enforce but it also it needs to encourage an easier and safe way for compliance from the fishermen.”

Gear stowage workshop

BOSTON - Members from the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, New England Fishery Management Council and commercial fishermen meet at the Northeast Regional Fisheries Training Center in Cape Cod, Mass., Nov. 29, 2011. The group met to test solutions for displaying stowed gear aboard a trawling vessel while underway. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson.