The North Pacific Observer Program (Observer Program) plays a vital role in the conservation and management of the Bering Sea, Aleutian Islands, and Gulf of Alaska groundfish and halibut fisheries. The program trains, briefs, debriefs, and oversees over 450 observers annually who collect catch data onboard fishing vessels and at onshore processing plants that is used for in-season management and scientific purposes such as stock assessments and ecosystem studies. The program ensures that the data collected by observers are of the highest quality possible by implementing rigorous quality control and quality assurance processes for the data collected by observers.
The Observer Program provides the regulatory framework for NOAA Fisheries certified observers to collect data on groundfish and halibut fisheries. The information collected by observers provides the best scientific information to manage the fisheries and to develop measures to minimize bycatch. Observers collect biological samples and fishery-dependent information on total catch and interactions with protected species. Managers use data collected by observers to monitor quotas, manage groundfish and prohibited species catch, and document and reduce fishery interactions with protected resources. Division staff process data and make it available to the Sustainable Fisheries Division of the Alaska Regional Office for quota monitoring, to scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center for stock assessment, ecosystem investigations, and an array of research investigations, as well as the fishing industry itself which relies on observer data to monitor quotas and prohibited species catch (PSC).
In January 2013, NOAA Fisheries changed how observers in the partial coverage category are deployed, how observer coverage in the partial coverage category is funded, and which vessels and processors must have some or all of their operations observed. These changes increased the statistical reliability of data collected by the program, addressed cost inequality among fishery participants, and expanded observer coverage to previously unobserved fisheries.
The Observer Program is implemented by regulations at subpart E of 50 CFR part 679 which authorize the deployment of observers and EM to collect information necessary for the conservation and management of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska groundfish and halibut fisheries. The information collected by observers provides the best available scientific information to manage the fisheries and to develop measures to minimize bycatch. Observers collect biological samples and fishery-dependent information on total catch and interactions with protected species. Managers use data collected by observers and electronic monitoring to monitor quotas, manage groundfish and prohibited species catch, and document and reduce fishery interactions with protected resources. Scientists use observer-collected data for stock assessments and marine ecosystem research.
Observer Program Categories
All participants in the federally-managed commercial groundfish fisheries off Alaska (except catcher vessels delivering unsorted codends to a mothership) are subject to Observer Program requirements. Through the Annual Deployment Plan, NOAA Fisheries has the flexibility to decide when and where to deploy observers in the partial coverage category based on a scientifically defensible deployment plan reviewed annually by the Council.
Vessels and processors are placed into one of two observer coverage categories:
- Full coverage category
- Partial coverage category
Full Coverage Category
Described at § 679.51(a)(2), the full coverage category includes:
- catcher/processors (with limited exceptions described below)
- motherships/catcher vessels while participating in AFA or CDQ pollock fisheries
- catcher vessels while participating in CDQ groundfish fisheries (except: sablefish; and pot or jig gear catcher vessels)
- catcher vessels while participating in the Central Gulf of Alaska Rockfish Program
- inshore processor when receiving or processing Bering Sea pollock
Vessels and processors in the full coverage category obtain observers by contracting directly with permitted observer providers.
Partial Coverage Category
Described at § 679.51(a)(1), the partial coverage category includes:
- catcher vessels designated on a Federal Fisheries Permit (FFP) when directed fishing for groundfish in federally managed or parallel fisheries, except those in the full coverage category
- catcher vessels when fishing for halibut IFQ or CDQ
- catcher vessels when fishing for sablefish IFQ or fixed gear sablefish CDQ
- shoreside or stationary floating processor, except those in the full coverage category
- Small catcher/processors placed in the partial coverage category as described at § 679.51(a)(3).
Three pools of partial coverage vessels
All vessels in the partial coverage category are placed into one of these pools with differing requirements. These pools and requirements are as follows:
- No Selection pool. This category applies to all vessels fishing with hook-andline or pot gear that are less than 40 feet LOA, and all catcher vessels of any length exclusively fishing with jig, handline, troll, and dinglebar troll gear. In addition, vessels participating in NOAA Fisheries Electronic Monitoring innovation and research will not be required to carry an observer. Inclusion in this pool is re-evaluated each year in the Annual Deployment Plan and may change in the future. Eligible landings from vessels in the no selection pool are assessed the observer fee.
- EM Trip Selection pool. This category applies to vessels using nontrawl gear in the partial coverage category that have been approved to be in the EM selection pool. Vessels that are approved to participate in the EM selection pool are required to log fishing trips and comply with EM deployment requirements; these vessels are not required to carry an observer. Once NOAA Fisheries approves a vessel for the EM selection pool, that vessel remains in the EM selection pool for the duration of the calendar year. Vessel owners or operators whose vessel is in this selection pool are required to log each fishing trip into ODDS.
- Observer Trip Selection pool. This category applies to catcher vessels of any length fishing with trawl gear, and to hook-and-line and pot gear vessels that are greater than or equal to 40 feet LOA. Vessel owners or operators whose vessel is in this selection pool are required to log each fishing trip into ODDS. On logging your trip, you will be immediately informed if the trip has been randomly selected for observer coverage. If the logged fishing trip is selected, then the vessel must take an observer on that trip. The observer will be provided by an observer provider contracted by NOAA Fisheries. Vessel owners or operators in this pool must log fishing trips at least 72 hours before anticipated departure.
FFP holders are not required to carry an observer or EM system while they fish in the State of Alaska guideline harvest level groundfish fisheries, unless they are retaining IFQ species or halibut CDQ during those fisheries.
Observer Deploy and Declare System (ODDS)
- BSAI Trawl Catcher Vessel Annual Full Observer Coverage Request
- Catcher/Processor Observer Partial Coverage Request (PDF)
- Log trips online (via ODDS)
- Log trips on the phone: 1-855-747-6377 (via AIS)
- ODDS Technical FAQs for Observer Coverage
- ODDS Technical FAQs for EM
- For help or information about using ODDS, call: 206-526-4194
Safety Decal Requirements
Vessels that carry observers are required to have a valid U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Decal issued within the last two years, which ensures the vessel is in compliance with USCG safety equipment requirements. Please plan ahead for this requirement because USCG examiners are not located in all communities and may have difficulty reaching your location on short notice.
North Pacific Observer Program Additional Resources
- Training & Briefing
- Training Schedule
- Permitted Providers
- Pre-Class Reading Material
- Sampling Manual
- What is a North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Brochure
- Spatial Data Collected by Groundfish Observers in Alaska
- Alaska Groundfish Fishery Observer Data Map
- North Pacific Observer Resources
- Electronic Monitoring
- Annual Deployment Plans
- Annual Reports
- Vessel / Plant Operator FAQ
- Vessel / Plant Operator Comment Form
- Observer Deploy and Declare System (ODDS)
- Observer Fee Collection and Payment
- Observer Harassment Warning (PDF)
- Federal Register - Rules and Notices
- FMP Amendments - Rules and Notices
- Regulatory Analyses