Tech firm born in Maine uses AI to monitor commercial fishing

A company that got its start in Maine is using artificial intelligence to improve data collection for groundfish fishermen and fisheries management officials. 

New England Marine Monitoring’s new technology could eliminate the need for onboard human observers for ground fishermen, resulting in safer, faster, and more accurate and affordable monitoring and data collection, according to CEO Mark Hager. 

Currently, the groundfish fishery requires that 40 percent of a fisherman’s trips be monitored, especially with quotas for many groundfish species at historic lows. Traditionally, this monitoring has been done in person, on board the vessel. 

But it’s no easy job, which Hager knows firsthand. 

Earlier in his career, Hager worked as one of those fisheries observers and would go out on a boat with a crew for weeks at a time. 

It’s time-consuming, expensive for the fishermen, and dangerous for everyone on board, particularly on smaller vessels where there’s not as much room to move around. 

“It’s a super hard way of life,” he said. 

He knew there must be a better, more cost-effective and safer way to do things, and with help from Gulf of Maine Ventures, a business development arm of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, New England Marine Monitoring was born. The company is active and has offices in both Maine and Massachusetts.

The basis of the business is pretty simple. 

An electronic monitoring camera installed on the railing of a commercial fishing boat.

Basically, Hager said, “we put cameras on fishing boats to collect data instead of putting people on fishing boats to collect data.” 

A computer is wired to four cameras, which are mounted on the rigging of a boat. The cameras watch as the fish are brought up onto the boat, dumped, and sorted, paying special attention to the bycatch, or what gets thrown back overboard. 

The data are collected and brought back to the lab, where staff will spend thousands of hours watching footage, counting and annotating “one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish,” Hager said. 

Regulators use these data to account for the catch of each vessel.

This form of electronic monitoring is not unique to New England Marine Monitoring.

That said, the company has developed technology to streamline that time-consuming video-watching process by teaching the system to recognize when fishing is actually happening. 

New England Marine Monitoring’s technology can also recognize when fish are being thrown overboard and will highlight the fish with a white box, making them quicker and easier for the reviewer to find and mark. There’s also the ability to view these as image stills, at which point the reviewer can click to the next one, instead of, say, waiting several minutes in between fish being tossed back. 

These practices are in use, but are on a trial basis and not being used in the federal programs. Still, an early report found that even the first layer, the fishing activity detection, reduced review time by an average of 17 percent. Hager estimated that the white box around the fish could save another 15 percent or so. 

“We’re on the cusp of implementing this into the majority of our programs,” he said. 

Mark Hager, CEO of New England Marine Monitoring, installs the company’s artificial intelligence system on a New England groundfish vessel. Photo courtesy of New England Marine Monitoring

MORE MONITORING

The required monitoring for ground fishermen increased from 25 percent of trips in 2018 to 40 percent in 2020, and may increase to 100 percent next year, thanks to an amendment to the current groundfish monitoring program adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council in October. 

The 100 percent monitoring target is intended to improve the reliability and accountability of catch reporting in the fishery to ensure there is precise and accurate representation of catch (including discards), and that species are protected from overfishing. 

The measure still needs to be approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. 

If approved, fishermen will be able to choose which form of observation – remote or in-person – best suits their vessel and crew.

Aside from fisheries management, the technology can also provide practical data for fishermen, including temperature and depth analysis, which they can use to help make decisions on where to fish in the future.

It can also make monitoring less expensive.

Costs are currently reimbursed by the government, but it’s unclear how much may be reimbursed in the future, Hager said, and it’s likely that at some point fishermen will have to pay for monitoring.

For some, “paying for human observers could put them out of business,” he said. There’s no hard and fast cost for either option, but fisheries officials estimate that it costs about $700 for 24 hours of surveillance from an onsite human observer,  compared to about $100-$700 for an observer to review footage from the lab.

Currently, there are about 20 boats in Maine testing out electronic monitoring systems, five of which are working with New England Marine Monitoring. 

Beyond the groundfish audit project, New England Marine Monitoring is also working on the New England Groundfish Maximized Retention Program with the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and Massachusetts-based Integrated Monitoring. Vessels in this project are exempt from the minimum fish size requirements and instead must retail and land all groundfish they catch. Electronic monitoring is used as a compliance tool to make sure all fish are retained and landed where they are accounted for by a dockside monitor, according to the company’s website.

Right now, New England Marine Monitoring is focused on the groundfish species, like cod, haddock, pollock and flounder, among others, but Hager hopes to expand the technology to other species. Recently they did trials with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association on scallops, he said. 

The company is the first of the Gulf of Maine Ventures businesses to be sold – it was purchased in June by Vesper Co., a private firm that partners with entrepreneurs to help scale their businesses through technology investment and acquisitions, according to a press release from the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

According to Blaine Grimes, director of the Gulf of Maine Ventures initiative, this was always the goal.

Gulf of Maine Ventures seeks to reshape the region’s seafood economy and ocean technology through the incubation, acceleration and funding of new business ventures, according to the research institute’s website, and seeks to leverage private sector market opportunities for these mission-driven businesses.

They work with businesses that they believe can, with the help of their leadership and investment, accelerate positive social and economic opportunity in the Gulf of Maine.

New England Marine Monitoring, with its potential to assist fishermen and sustainable fisheries management practices, was one of those, Grimes said.

“We think it’s really important,” she said of the work being done. “Ultimately, the reason it’s important, … he cares deeply and we care deeply about how this data is collected. There’s a real benefit” to the industry, she said.


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