Web service reels in savings

Web service reels in savings

E-commerce helps NMFS reduce delays and costs for issuing fishing permits

By Patricia Daukantas

GCN Staff

The National Marine Fisheries Service has dived into electronic commerce by issuing its tuna fishing permits via the Web.

Over the last two years, electronic permitting has greatly reduced the delays and costs of manually processing paper forms, said Mark Murray-Brown, a fisheries manager with the Highly Migratory Species Division of the fisheries service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Whether a fishing boat owner has a computer or a phone, the NMFS Permit Shop can speed up the application process for obtaining a bluefin tuna fishing permit.



The back-end systems behind the public Web site let NOAA administrators manage and upload new content to the site's database, said Timothy M. O'Connor, vice president of marketing for electronic-government solutions at AppNet Inc. of Bethesda, Md. AppNet developed the site.

Vice President Al Gore's office recently presented a Hammer Award to the NMFS Permit Shop Web site, at www.nmfspermits.com, for making a significant contribution to reinventing government.

The site specializes in permits for commercial and recreational fishing of one salt-water species, the bluefin tuna.

Japan has a lucrative sushi market for bluefin tuna caught in the northern Atlantic Ocean, Murray-Brown said. Commercial-size fish, which must exceed 73 inches in length, are shipped overnight from New England to Tokyo.

By law, bluefin tuna fishing requires a permit from the fisheries service. Until a few years ago, 'a row of desks with people' processed permit applications by hand, Murray-Brown said. Because the agency didn't have the staff to license all fishing boats annually, each year it mailed out about 5,000 tuna permits that were valid for three years.

Reeling in red tape

Processing a permit manually took an average of one month, Murray-Brown said, and boat owners didn't always get their permits in time for the start of a fishing tournament or the fishing season.

'If the fishermen weren't organized and ready, there would be trouble,' Murray-Brown said. Some days his staff was sidetracked from other duties to handle calls from frantic procrastinators.

About four years ago, fisheries officials decided they had to redo the permit issuing process. For nearly two years, they contracted with another company, not AppNet, to run a transitional Web site, Murray-Brown said. The site allowed only downloading of permit application forms.

'AppNet realized how effective it was to have an efficient public interface,' Murray-Brown said.

The company spent five and a half months developing the site. 'We actually sent engineers to the dock,' O'Connor said.

Powering the Permit Shop is Microsoft Site Server Commerce Edition running under Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, O'Connor said. For development, AppNet programmers used Microsoft Visual Studio 6.0, the Platinum ERwin database modeling tool from Computer Associates International Inc., and SQL Navigator from Quest Software Inc. of Irvine, Calif.

The Web server that hosts the Permit Shop is a Hewlett-Packard NetServer LPr with dual 500-MHz Pentium III processors, 1G of RAM and a 4G drive, O'Connor said. The system's Oracle8i database runs on an identical server. Both servers are located in AppNet's Laurel, Md., data center.

The site authorizes credit card numbers via ICverify from CyberCash Inc. of Reston, Va., and it authenticates users with digital certificates from VeriSign Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.

The nmfspermits.com home page directs users into four areas: permits, information center, landings reports and tournaments.

The permits section gives applicants three options: fill out an online application and pay by credit card, download an application in Adobe Portable Document Format or request an application package in the mail.

Do-it-yourself permits

Once the online permitting process is done, permit holders print out a copy of their documents on their own printers.

'What's important is the permit number, not the type of paper or the color,' Murray-Brown said. If Coast Guard or other law enforcement officials inspect a boat, they can call the fisheries service to check the permit number against the agency's records.

'At one point [permit appearance] was a big concern, and for a long while we struggled with that,' Murray-Brown said.

For tuna fishers who don't have computer access, AppNet provided a phone number for automated permit renewals. Subcontractor PriceInteractive Inc. also of Reston, supplied the interactive voice response system, which uses Extensible Markup Language to communicate with the Web server, O'Connor said. When users enter or retrieve permit information by phone, the voice response system generates XML code and sends it to the Web server.

For people who don't have the push-button phones needed to navigate the voice system, AppNet provides live-operator support through a second subcontractor, Target Teleservices of Salt Lake City.

The Permit Shop's information center contains a reference library of fishing regulations, brief announcements of changes to tuna fishing regulations and up-to-date catch statistics.

The fourth area of the Web site, still under development, is devoted to fishing tournaments. The fisheries service collects data on the number of fish caught during tournaments to assess the impact on fish populations.

Currently the tournament page directs event operators to the site's library section, where they can download a PDF registration form. The section eventually will provide forms for submitting competition results.

Outsourcing the site has helped the fisheries service do more with less, Murray-Brown said. It used to issue tuna fishing permits free of charge at a cost of $165,000 per year for personnel to handle the paperwork.

The service has set its current permit fee, $25 per year, to recoup what it pays AppNet to run the Permit Shop, Murray-Brown said.

Getting into e-commerce 'took a bit of a leap of faith, but it had to come at some point,' Murray-Brown said. 'The old system just wasn't working. Something had to happen.'

Without permit-related crises, he said, he has more time for job duties such as counting fish landings and studying regulations. His reports, in PDF, are uploaded to the AppNet site for the fishing public to read.

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