Australia's federal fisheries authority is exploring an ambitious plan to stream live footage from fishing vessels in a bid to improve its ability to respond to controversial reports that nets are killing endangered marine animals.
The plan could also help protect the authority's on-board observers in rare instances where their daily reports expose them to aggression and threats from the crews with whom they spend weeks or months at sea.
Dr James Findlay, chief executive of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), revealed that the agency had started approaching ship-to-shore communication providers to explore the possibility of using streaming video of activity on fishing vessels "as close to real-time as we can".
Dr Findlay revealed the agency's ambitions during a senate estimates hearing last week. The environment and communications committee was questioning AFMA over its handling of a high-profile brush between a whale shark and the controversial factory freezer trawler the Geelong Star in February.
Contradictory reports from AFMA officials on board the vessel and the Geelong Star's operator crew led to a flurry of mainstream media attention, and that ignited on social media.
Initial reports from AFMA suggested that the shark, which is not an endangered species but protected, became entangled in the trawler's nets but swam away safely. (On board observers, some times referred to as "MMOs", or marine mammal observers, are generally more concerned about the welfare of endangered marine animals such as certain species seals).
Environmental advocates accused AFMA of conducting "a cover up" after local media began publishing pictures purportedly showing the animal on the deck of the trawler.
The Geelong Star's owners denied that the images were of a whale shark but it took the AFMA nearly a week to review its footage and release an official report confirming that its observers were correct; the whale shark was on deck for around four minutes before being craned back into the water with its fate unknown.
Dr Findlay told the committee that the level of media attention around the incident prompted the agency to take special precautions to review the footage and ensure that reports from its observers were accurate, hence slowing its response.
However, he also raised another issue with the committee concerning the AFMA's actions.
"One of the reasons we're moving toward cameras and away from the human observers is because the operating environments in which these observers operate is not a safe place to be on a daily basis, and some of that risk on some of our boats comes from crew members or skippers," he said.
In other words AFMA is anxious that its observers maybe vulnerable in situations their daily reports contradict those of vessel operators.
Dr Findlay emphasised that such incidents were "very rare", however he said that in cases where they had occurred recreational drugs had been a factor.
AFMA operates between two and six high-definition cameras on about 80 vessels with a further 220 in scope for inclusion in its monitoring activities. Each camera collects around three gigabytes of data per hour.
"They're high definition cameras so this is actually a lot of data. Anyone who has sat and downloaded stuff [...] in high-definition understands that even with a (fixed line) internet system that takes a lot of time. When it's carried remotely through the air that takes a hell of a lot of time. It can be done but it's extremely expensive," Dr Findlay told the committee.
Dr Findlay told Fairfax Media that its commercial-in-confidence discussions with ship-to-shore communication providers revealed that while the cost of such services was currently prohibitive it might change in the near future.
AFMA pays less than $10 for postal providers to deliver the high capacity hard drives that it currently uses to collect the footage on the boats to its headquarters. At current bulk rates AFMA would need to pay a ship-to-shore provider around $100 per gigabyte, and that's just not feasible yet, Dr Findlay said.
AFMA also told the committee that the agency planned to increase its social media activity in order to engage with the public more transparently.
Fairfax Media attempted to contact the Small Pelagic Fishery Industry Association (SPFIA) for comment. SPFIA has claimed that ideologically driven green groups were subjecting its members to "emotive" and "morally bankrupt" social media misinformation campaigns, particularly against the Geelong Star.