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Meet Fisheries Biologist Thomas Piecuch

May 13, 2019

Meet NOAA fisheries biologist Thomas Piecuch. Thomas works as a liaison for the North Pacific Fishery Observer Program in Alaska’s remote Dutch Harbor, America’s biggest and busiest fishing port.

Man wearing black beanie and coat with snow capped mountain in background.

Thomas Piecuch conducting a sample station inspection. Here he is checking whether the porthole would be a viable place for an observer to tally longline catch from.

What do observers do on fishing vessels?

Fishery observers are trained biologists who collect first-hand data on what fishing vessels are catching and any interactions with protected species such as whales, seals, and protected seabirds. The high quality data they collect is used for in-season fisheries management, stock assessments, and ecosystem studies.

What is your job?

I support observers in the field. My goal is to make sure they can collect high quality data safely. I get them any specific training needed to supplement the basic training they get in Seattle.  I talk with fishermen to make sure they have the observer coverage they need. Recently I have been working together with both scientists and industry to help reduce halibut mortality.

We are the only NOAA Fisheries office in the Nation’s highest volume fishing port. Our office is open seven days a week and we are on call around the clock to accommodate ship schedules and whatever situations arise. We’re always around and prepared for any emergency.

What is a day at work like?

It varies by fishing season. Right now it is the beginning of the pollock season, probably our busiest time. This morning I had a meeting with other field staff observer program offices in Kodiak and Anchorage to ensure consistency among staff and the observers in the field.

Next I will go to a vessel for a pre-cruise meeting with the Captain and other officers to explain what observer and boat responsibilities are. This is standard procedure in certain fisheries before deploying an observer.

After that I’ll do mid-cruise debriefings. These take an hour or two each. I meet with the observer in person, over the phone, or via fax to review the data they have collected so far, confirm accuracy of species identifications, and answer any questions they have. I typically do about 100 of these a year.

In between scheduled meetings, observers pop into the office to get gear, forms, and ask sampling questions. I also answer any questions about the Observer Program’s custom software program that observers use to capture and transmit data. I have become the defacto software tech in the field (Glenn Campbell in our Seattle office is the real expert!). If this software isn’t working, observers can’t communicate with us. It’s key to them being able to transmit their data in real time and accomplish their duties.

Also sometimes we get to work on special projects. Last year I got to help with the BioBlitz program with the Smithsonian Institute, that was really neat.

How about a day off the job?

Like everything in Dutch Harbor, it’s weather dependent. On a nice day, my wife and I take our dog for a hike. I like to hunt and fish. In summer, we can be out on the boat in daylight at 11 pm fishing for halibut. Then there will be two weeks of howling winds where you can’t get out at all.

I host a local radio music show. And there is always some kind of community gathering to go to—auctions, dinners, etc. Dutch Harbor has a very lively community life.

What do you like best about living in Dutch Harbor?

When the weather is good, when the sun shines, it is spectacularly beautiful. Also the local fishing. I can walk a few steps out my front door to catch sockeye.

How did you end up here?

I graduated from the University of Alabama with degrees in marine science and chemistry. I worked as an observer in Alaska right out of school, then in the Gulf of Mexico for two years. Then I started looking for more settled lifestyle but staying with the Observer Program. I found that in this job, which I started in 2016.

What is the most challenging thing about your work?

Having observers out in tough weather. When it’s really bad it is challenging for observers, schedules. We are always concerned for their safety first. Observers go through cold water survival training and what to do in case of an emergency. In the field, we provide them with Personal Locator Beacons, Personal Floatation Devices with strobe lights, and immersion suits. We hold of all of the equipment to our own standards, most of which are stricter than manufacturer recommendations Even though I am land-based, weather is the biggest challenge. If flights are delayed, if observers are delayed, boats can’t leave, fishermen can’t get out and fish. It affects shipping too. It means sometimes we have to use creative solutions to sample on some boats.

What excites you most about your work?

When I give a recommendation for an observer to improve sampling techniques and you can see the change in the data. They listen. For example, I can use my experience to suggest ways to get more than one sample from a haul, leading to better data. Everybody in the Observer program works together, everyone takes everyone else’s ideas seriously for new ideas to improve the job.

Additional Resources

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on August 01, 2023