Observer programs like the Northeast Fishery Observer Program, operated out of the Fisheries Sampling Branch (FSB), collect fundamental data necessary to strengthen fisheries management in support of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. While aboard commercial fishing vessels, observers collect a wide variety of data: information on the cost of fishing, fishing practices and gear(s) used, environmental conditions like water temperature, and any interactions with protected species like marine mammals and sea turtles. Some of the most important information collected by observers is the amount of fish that are caught but thrown back, which is known as bycatch.
In addition to monitoring bycatch, observers may also collect biological samples like fish length and weight, and scales or ear bones (otoliths), which can be used to age individual fish, giving scientists an in-depth look at a fish population’s health and structure. In order to increase the precision of the data collected by observers, a certain number of days-at-sea are required each year to adequately sample 14 federally managed fish and invertebrate species groups as well as loggerhead sea turtles. The species groups include: Atlantic salmon, bluefish, fluke/scup/black sea bass, Atlantic herring, large mesh groundfish, monkfish, red deep-sea crab, sea scallops, skates, small mesh groundfish, spiny dogfish, squid/butterfish/mackerel, surfclam/ocean quahog, and tilefish.
To meet observer coverage requirements, Northeast groundfish vessels must notify their intent to fish at least 48 hours prior to a fishing trip via phone, email, or the online Pre-Trip Notification System (PTNS). Most users prefer the PTNS. Once a trip notification is received, an observer may be randomly assigned to the groundfish vessel based on the selection characteristics of the various sampling programs being administered.
The nature of new and ever-changing management regulations, as well as the introduction of electronic monitoring in fisheries observing, sparked a need to update the online PTNS which was originally implemented in 2010. With input from the fishing industry, a technical team from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), including staff from the FSB, has been working on improving and modernizing the system to better serve the groundfish fishermen.
The goal of the new online PTNS is to increase flexibility and ease of use for both the NEFSC PTNS team and the groundfish fishery. Some new features include a more mobile-friendly interface and the ability to input a week’s worth of day trips at one time. The hallmark of the new PTNS is to increase coverage equitability for individual fishing vessels by using a two-stage selection process. Both stratum-level and vessel-level coverage rates will be taken into account before assigning an observer to a fishing vessel. Strata are defined by the location fished and fishing gear used.
The new PTNS is scheduled to go live in April, just before the Northeast groundfish fishery season opens on May 1st. To help transition to the new PTNS, the NEFSC will hold a series of free public meetings throughout the Northeast region in order to provide information and answer questions. The dates and locations of these meetings, as well as more information and materials, can be found here.