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Improving Safety Before a Trip Benefits Everyone on Commercial Fishing Vessels

October 08, 2019

NOAA Fisheries works hard to support a cooperative and safe working environment for fishermen, observers, and the companies that employ them. A recent two-year independent review of safety practices in U.S. observer programs found them to be robust, mature, and effective. While many positive steps have been made, there is always room to improve safety and make these relationships stronger.

Female observer performing pre-trip safety check.

Ensuring a safety culture is critical to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Fisheries Sampling Branch mission. The branch manages fisheries observer and monitoring programs in the Greater Atlantic region from North Carolina to Maine. Assessing observer practices and procedures is an ongoing effort. That was reflected in a summer workshop organized by the branch to evaluate the process of completing the required observer’s pre-trip vessel safety checklist.

The August workshop brought together a diverse group of professionals. The 24 people who attended have a combined 440 years of experience working with observer programs and/or commercial fishing vessels. A report on the workshop is now available.

Participants came from the U.S. Coast Guard enforcement and vessel safety offices in two districts, the fishing industry, NOAA’s National Observer Coordination office, regional observer programs, observer provider companies, and the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. There were groundfish sector managers, observers, safety trainers, and gear specialists.  

“The top nine life-saving items listed in our workshop report need to be present and operable every trip," said Amy Martins, chief of the Fisheries Sampling Branch. “Observers and fishermen have offered suggestions for improvements to the safety checklist to make it safer and more efficient for everyone, plus we all benefit by cooperative efforts and shared expert advice.”

The Fisheries Sampling Branch plans to start testing and incorporating improvements to the safety checklist process beginning in the fall of 2019 and continuing into the spring of 2020. The proposed changes developed at the workshop will be evaluated to assess their effectiveness and may be changed if safety is thought to be compromised. 

Federal Requirements

observer checks the life raft on a fishing vessel

An observer goes through the items on the pre-trip vessel safety checklist as required by federal fisheries law.  Here, she is checking the life raft installation. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The U.S. Coast Guard establishes safety equipment requirements for commercial fishing vessels and conducts inspections to ensure the equipment is present and operating. However, the Magnuson-Stevens Act governing federal fisheries management mandates that fishery observers successfully complete a separate inspection, using the pre-trip vessel safety checklist, prior to each trip aboard a vessel to which they are assigned. 

These requirements can lead to conflicts and challenges at the time that the vessel plans to depart, but when done by an experienced observer with a compliant boat, the check can be done in about 15 minutes. Nevertheless, the program wants to ensure that observers are using their best judgment, with “safety first” in mind. 

“The safety checklist currently in use by our observers may lead them to inspect equipment that is in a difficult, possibly hazardous, place to reach and this can cause conflict,” said Ken Keene, Mid-Atlantic area observer lead and safety lead for the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program. “For example, we conducted extensive risk analysis and assessment, and determined that when the life raft is located on top of a wheelhouse there is a high risk for an incident.”

Life raft inspections include recording expiration dates for the life raft service and hydrostatic release, confirming raft capacity, and checking for proper installation.

Workshop participants discussed how to reduce the burden of safety checks for the industry and observers while meeting all regulations and requirements. They reviewed regulations, discussed the risks, hurdles, and conflicts among  the vessel captain, crew, and observers. They also discussed the benefits of an improved process, reviewed case studies involving vessel safety equipment, and developed some options on ways to improve the process while keeping safety for all first and foremost in mind.  

Action items were identified and a timeline established for introducing the proposed changes.

Proposed Changes Will be Assessed for Effectiveness

yoyoung woman on deck completing the safety checklist

Observer performs the pre-trip vessel safety checklist prior to a trip on a commercial fishing vessel. Photo: NOAA Fisheries

Among the proposed changes are expanding EVIC, the emergency position indicating radio beacon visual inspection card, to include life raft inspections. This information can then be shared by one observer with the next observer boarding the vessel and would not require multiple inspections within a limited time frame, reducing the opportunity for injury.

Other proposed changes include: 

  • Revamp the safety-check training module for new observers

  • Reduce safety checks by the same observer going on the same vessel for successive days

  • Reformat the checklist form to make it easier and quicker to complete 

  • Work with industry members and observer training staff to ensure the EVIC cards are issued and used as much as possible

  • Develop a safety reminder list for observers prior to boarding

  • Create a mentoring program to ensure that new observers are completing the safety checklist and communicating well with industry

“We believe these changes to the program’s safety policies and practices will maintain the high level of safety that our observer programs are known for, while reducing the risk for injury and/or incident,” Keene said. “We appreciate the assistance, feedback, and expertise from the industry stakeholders, observers, and safety professionals who participated in this process."

Martins agrees. “We are always reassessing our observer safety practices and procedures and view it as a continuum. These proposed changes are another step forward to improve safety, not only for observers but also for fishermen,” she said.


For more information, please contact Shelley Dawicki.

Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on September 10, 2021