In a nondescript government building in the Lower Hutt suburb of Petone the entire New Zealand commercial fishing fleet is being watched. Where they are, what they are catching, what is being discarded, how fast or slow the vessel is moving, and much, much more is being recorded. LESLEY HAMILTON reports.

This will no doubt be a surprise to the New Zealand public who believe the fleet operate covertly over the horizon with no checks and balances with widespread bad behaviour.

Well, do we have a tale to tell you.

Let me introduce you to Waka Haurapa – the boat tracker.

Waka Haurapa is a system that displays both Geospatial Position Reporting (GPR) and Electronic Reporting (ER) data onto a very large screen that sits on the wall of the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) compliance office in Petone.

Steve Ham, MPI’s national manager of fisheries compliance, is showing us the system. The screen is filled with moving dots around the coast of New Zealand. Every dot is a commercial fishing vessel.

“At the moment, we have more than 900 vessels reporting to the system but on any one day there are 400 on average. The reason you do not see the other 500 is they will be vessels in port or not currently fishing,” says Ham.

The system can even show whether the vessels are moving or stationary and whether they have an MPI observer onboard. It also allows MPI to search for a vessel that is fishing for a particular species. Different layers can be placed over the screen so you can see marine reserves, Benthic Protection Areas (BPAs), and other restricted fishing areas around the coast of New Zealand and within our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Ham says the system is not solely a compliance tool.

“We don’t sit here watching it 24/7. It has an alert-based system that notifies us if a vessel has strayed into a protected area, but mostly it gives us a rich overview of the maritime landscape. Who is where, when, and it covers the reported catch so catch trend analysis can be performed in near real-time.”

Darko Petrovic is a senior compliance analyst and is operating the system. He points to the Wellington coastline.

“Here is Island Bay and we have the marine reserve geo-fenced so we can identify vessels that go in and out of there. We get email alerts anytime a vessel goes in and out of a marine reserve throughout the country.

We cooperate with the Department of Conservation to monitor whether any fishing activity has taken place, or whether they are just passing through.”

MPI’s fisheries compliance liaison & coordination team manager, Niamh Murphy says there is often a perception from the public that a vessel is fishing in an area where it should not be.

“We can now categorically say, they’re not, they’re transiting the area – and we don’t even have to involve the vessel. So, it has created efficiencies in ways that we don’t often get to tell people about.” This monitoring is possible after the introduction of ER/GPR last year, a mammoth change from paper-based reporting.

Ham says the industry had been fishing and reporting in the same way for 30 years under the Quota Management System (QMS).

“It is taking a bit of time to transition but there wouldn’t be too many industries that have done it at such a speed and got on board with it. And you can see it right here on the screen. It just gives you that next level of transparency.”

Ham says you can’t underestimate the change for some fishers.

“There were people who didn’t know how to turn on their iPad. In December last year, when electronic reporting was new, we had around 3000 late returns a week that had to be followed up. Two weeks ago, there were 12 fishers we were following up with and only 120 late returns submitted. This is a huge improvement.”

Murphy says society has been forced to embrace technology, like it or not. But that should not detract from what the industry has been able to achieve in a year.

Ham agrees. “They’ve done a good job. There have been challenges with some fishers, especially if they are a one-man band. There have been issues raised about safety at times, but they are working through that and I think as this evolves there will be changes to the system. But technically there have not been many issues.”

There are three providers of the app technology for fishers; Electronic Navigation Limited (ENL), Deckhand, and eCatch and it is up to the fishers which one they use to report their catch.

Murphy says the systems were designed for usability. “Drop down lists so you can’t transpose the acronym for the species. Beforehand there was difficulty reading handwriting or a decimal place was in the wrong spot.”

As well as GPR recording a vessel’s every move, the amount of information that must be reported is extensive. Reports on species of catch, disposal of fish, processing, method of catch, capture of non-fish protected species, and times of trip start, and trip end are just some.

All of these details can be seen on the screen in Petone in near real time and every trip the vessel makes is recorded in its trip history.

Ham says the rich data is also helping the industry.

“One fishing sector group came to us and told us they had a marine biotoxin incident and needed to know whether fishing was occurring in the area so they could alert fishers. We could give them that information in about an hour.”

Petrovic says another system sits alongside Waka Haurapa.

“We also use AIS, which is a global vessel tracking system to monitor foreign vessels coming close to our EEZ.”

Automatic Identification System (AIS) is used by around 500-600,000 vessels around the world and Petrovic says it allows them to monitor New Zealand’s borders and alert the navy or air force patrols to any suspected unreported fishing inside our EEZ.

Waka Haurapa has also mostly solved a problem MPI and the fishing industry have had for 20 years. The problem colloquially called ‘lines on maps’.

Ham says the hoki management area is a classic example.

“Every year we would get into a situation where we would say to deep water operators ‘you can’t go over that line’. And every year we would end up in a discussion on where that line was as interpretations could differ. So, what the geospatial team have put together is a data portal which enabled fishers to replicate MPI’s ‘lines on maps’ on their own plotters. So, now both MPI and fishers are all looking at the same ‘lines on maps’.”

Ham says more information will be loaded onto portals.

“The Deepwater Group wanted the hoki management areas put on the portal this year, so we got them loaded on. And that will be ongoing as other users tell us what would be useful to them. The new Maui and Hector’s dolphin Threat Management Plan closures came into effect on 1 October and they will be loaded on for the industry to access.”

Petrovic points out other examples; the hoki spawn areas in the Cook Strait, areas where you can’t fish with a Precision Seafood Harvesting system, and kina restrictions in Wellington Harbour.

While alerts are on marine reserves and BPAs around New Zealand’s coast, the system works in reverse on the high seas, where vessels are licensed to fish only in certain areas. If they go out of those areas an alert is sent to MPI.

Murphy says it doesn’t mean the vessel has done anything wrong; “It just means we may need to monitor and make sure they don’t start fishing where they are prohibited.”

Ham says if there is one more tool he could have, it would be a dockside monitoring scheme.

“A lot of the misinformation out there is around what is landed. A number of countries, including Australia and Canada, already independently verify the fish that is unloaded. We need to be able to verify what was caught and provided to the Licensed Fish Receiver. It would not be every vessel or every occasion – random testing if you will. It’s just another level of verification to aid greater transparency.”

Ham believes there is a real opportunity for the industry to use the technology as a marketing tool.

“There is a really good story there. This is where this fisher was on this day at this time when he caught that fish on your plate with this method.”

He says once fleet-wide cameras are implemented that information will also be folded into the system, giving an end-to-end assurance of the fisheries system.

“We all know cameras are coming but we should still be celebrating the steps we’ve made in transparency already.”

MPI is keen to show off the technology. Because of commercial sensitivities around the information on the screen about specific fishing operations, they are able to anonymise data or seek permission from operators to view their vessels.

“We should be talking about this. If companies have skippers in town, bring them out to have a look at their own vessels on screen. We will be inviting media in to have a look. The more people know about how much we have achieved in the transparency stakes the better.”