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As of March 12, for-hire vessels permitted to fish in federal waters for species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council will need to file their vessel trip reports electronically, even when fishing inshore.
By Jim Hutchinson, Jr.
The Greater Atlantic Regional Field Office (GARFO) website lists the free and pay options available for both tablet and personal computer, including their own free of charge Fish Online application (www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov)

Starting March 12, 2018 all vessels with Federal charter or party permits for species managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) will be required to submit electronic vessel trip reports (eVTRs) while on trips carrying passengers for hire.

As you’ve no doubt read previously in The Fisherman, federally permitted recreational fishing boats who ferry anglers back and forth to the fishing grounds have been keeping paper VTR logs for years; while it’s been a federal requirement for tracking angler headcount, effort and catch, these mostly unused paper documents have been stored on dusty shelves at NOAA Fisheries for decades.

In a mass transit sense, if you consider a party boat the equivalent of a bus, and a six-pack charter more like a cab or limo, those public transportation owners have to keep electronic tabs on what you do once you’ve reached your final destination; and failure to do so may be costly!

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), mandates placed upon the agency “to use the best available science in making management decisions” has prompted them to incorporate Northeast VTR data into the effort estimate for the for-hire fleet.

Recently, the Marine Recreational Information Program (MRIP) which gathers recreational harvest information through angler surveys every year began incorporating this same VTR effort data into the preliminary in-season estimates. NMFS officials believe this framework will further increase the timeliness and accuracy of data used in future management decisions.

For-hire fishing boat captains who hold a federal permit for MAFMC species will be required to fill out the electronic version of the VTR, which must be submitted through a NOAA-approved software application within 48 hours following completion of a fishing trip. This applies to any charter or party vessel that holds a permit for species managed by MAFMC (black sea bass, bluefish, scup, summer flounder, tilefish, Atlantic mackerel) while on a trip carrying passengers for hire will be required to submit these eVTRs through a NOAA-approved software application within 48 hours following the completion of a fishing trip.

“Anyone fishing in Federal waters (i.e., outside 3 miles) for any of the Council (or HMS) managed species must have the appropriate permits and are, therefore, required to submit VTRs,” said Moira Kelly, Fishery Program Specialist, Regional Recreational Fisheries Coordinator at NOAA Fisheries.

As for smaller, six-pack operations (cab and limo operators if you will) who don’t run with a full crew on deck, whatever captains are presently doing in terms of recording catches can still be used after the eVTR requirement for submission of data as of March 12. “Obviously, crew and passenger safety is paramount. Captains should determine the safest, most effective method for their particular set-up. They just need to submit electronically and within 48 hours,” Kelly said.

The eVTR implementation process began in July 2011 when the NMFS Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office (GARFO) approved their use on a limited and voluntary basis for a segment of the groundfish fleet. By 2013, NMFS made the electronic vessel trip reports available as an alternative to submitting handwritten hardcopies for all fishery management plans in the region.

For the March kickoff, GARFO has posted at their website both free and pay options for both tablet (iPad for example) or personal computer.

A major concern for many for-hire captains and crew was the integration of an electronic tracking device into one or two of the software programs. For example, the eTrips Mobile App originally provided a “track my trip” function which would collect data about where exactly boats fished and traveled during for-hire trips; on the other hand, the GARFO Fish Online app never featured the functionality nor does NMFS even require it.

Captains Mike Pierdinock and Barry Gibson, both New England for-hire captains and representatives of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA) said that particular functionality for GPS and/or transiting vessel details on the Safis eTrips mobile app in particular has been disabled and no longer functional in the software application or app.

“It is not included in any other app that is being utilized or promoted as part of the eVTR training by the Mid-Atlantic Council,” said Capt. Pierdinock, adding “We appreciate the fact that NMFS recognizes that such information is confidential and to provide such would be in violation of our 4th Amendment Rights and not necessary for fishery management purposes.”

According to NMFS, how the eVTR data arrives at GARFO varies by production. The NOAA/NEFSC Fisheries Logbook and Data Recording Software (FLDRS) information is sent initially to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center and then on to NMFS, whereas eTrips Mobile first sends the data to the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program (ACCSP), who in turn sends the data over to NMFS.

GARFO’s free Fish Online application on the other hand delivers data directly to NMFS; you can find the GARFO Fish Online app in the Apple App Store by searching “NOAA EVTR” or contact the GARFO Industry Support Line at 978-281-9188 or nmfs.gar.helpdesk@noaa.gov.

NMFS said all VTR data is protected by guidelines laid out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, regardless of the method of submission. Catch report data is considered confidential and may be accessed by approved entities, and may be released publically in aggregate according to NMFS, with entities with routine access to the information including NMFS staff; NOAA’s office of law enforcement as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, and the regional fisheries councils and Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

State fisheries agency staff; and Sector Managers (with owner signed release) will also have access to the data, while entities like academic institutions, researchers, and the public “can receive data from us via a data request that complies with our confidentiality guidelines,’ according NMFS officials.

Failure to maintain, make, keep, submit or complete required log book reports, trip reports, or catch reports is generally a $500 fine for a first offense and a $750 fine for a second offense, under NOAA’s Summary Settlement Schedule.

On Friday, March 2, MAFMC will hold a public webinar from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. to help for-hire vessel operators prepare for upcoming electronic reporting requirements. This webinar will be recorded and made available on the Council’s website for later viewing for those who cannot attend. Pre-registration is encouraged at www.mafmc.org/for-hire-evtr/. Pre-registration will allow us to assist you with setting up accounts and systems needed to comply with this requirement. To join the webinar, go to http://mafmc.adobeconnect.com/evtr2018/ select “Enter as Guest,” and type your name in the box. Telephone instructions are provided upon connecting, or you can call direct: 800-832-0736, Rm: *7833942#.

As for who will be responsible for submitting eVTR data and under what geographic boundaries, Kelly said if you fish exclusively in state waters you would not need a federal permit and thus are not required to submit a VTR.

“If you are issued a federal permit because you may or do occasionally fish in federal waters, you are required to submit a VTR for every trip, even if that trip occurred exclusively within state waters,” Kelly said, while adding “These are not new requirements, nor were they impacted by the new eVTR rule.”

“The need to have a federal permit to fish for these species in federal waters, and the corresponding requirement to submit a VTR for each trip, regardless of area fished on that trip, are long standing requirements. All that changed is the mode of submission and the timing,” Kelly added.

Notwithstanding the simple submission modification, Capt. Gibson said New England for-hire operators were mostly blindsided by the process itself.

"A lot of us who are up to speed on fishery management issues on a daily basis were not aware that eVTR reporting for MAFMC species pertained to New England vessels, since we are in another Council jurisdiction,” Gibson said, while adding “when the MAFMC went out to public comment with the proposal in May of 2017, they received a total of six comments. Six comments. What does that tell you about how widely the MAFMC and GARFO advertised this new electronic reporting requirement?"

Visit greater Atlantic Regional Field Office website.