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A camera from the Obepal project monitors longline fishing from the vessel. Photo: Orpagu

Can a high-tech solution save Spain’s fish stock?

Spanish longliners launch an electronic observation system on vessels that could help preserve marine ecosystems. Fishermen are wary of the consequences.
Spanish longliners launch an electronic observation system on vessels that could help preserve marine ecosystems. Fishermen are wary of the consequences.

Establishing fishery regulation to protect marine biodiversity is a challenge. Standardizing control mechanisms to ensure that such legislation is enforced, is an entirely different problem. In November, ORPAGU, a Spanish longline fishermen organization based in Galicia (in northwestern Spain), launched an electronic observation pilot project that NGOs hope can help prevent fisheries stocks from collapsing.

Within the European Union’s legal framework, fishing vessels are bound to follow several environmental rules such as the ‘landing obligation’, which requires all catches of regulated commercial species on-board to be landed and counted against quota. Ignacio Fresco, an independent Marine Policy consultant who for years has worked for NGOs such as Oceana, WWF, and Pew, explained that this rule obliges vessels to keep everything they catch on board and take it to port. This includes the catch that they cannot sell and usually discard. 

“They throw it back into the ocean so that it doesn’t count within their quota”, he said, adding that “with this requirement, vessels are called to be more selective when they fish.”

As important as the rule may be, it is difficult to know whether or not longliners —industrial fishing vessels of about 40 meters in length— are following it, especially since they fish far from shore. In order to address transparency issues, some vessels have an independent observer onboard.

But “embarking a scientist is expensive and further limits an already reduced space as a fishing vessel, where several people have to live together for weeks,” said Juana María Parada, ORPAGU’s executive director. This is why her organization is dedicating a year of work to study how they can do electronic monitoring. The budget for the Obepal project —as they have named the initiative— amounts to 57,779 euros, 25% of which is provided by the organization.

Electronic monitoring could be crucial for the conservation of species that are being overfished, which in the end will benefit fishermen whose lives depend on these ecosystems’ health, Fresco argued. “We are not against fishing, we are protecting the future of it,” he said.

A camera from the Obepal project monitors longline fishing from the stern of the ship. Photo: Orpagu

According to FAO, nearly 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted. Since 2019, a coalition of NGOs that include WWF, Oceana, Client Earth, Seas at Risk, and Our Fish, among others, have been pushing for a remote observation technology obligation within the EU’s revision of the Fisheries Control Regulation.

The coronavirus pandemic has only stressed the need to automatize these observation programs. To avoid onboard experts getting infected, all observation programs were cancelled. But the fishing continued, which meant vessels went four or five months without any vigilance. “If they’d had cameras on, we would have been able to know what happened in those four or five months,” Fresco said.

Their proposal has not been free of criticism. “Fishermen lobbied hard against it. They broadcasted a video campaign in which they asked MEPs how they would like it if they installed cameras to watch if policymakers were working properly,” Fresco recalled. The camera system the NGOs are demanding does not require filming the fishermen directly, it only needs to show what is happening in the fishing gear area.

While a relevant part of the fishing sector doesn’t like the idea, “Galician fishermen are coming ahead,” Fresco said, celebrating that one of the two main Spanish fishermen organizations is showing some leadership in regulation enforcement.