As professionally trained biological technicians, NOAA Fisheries observers collect data from U.S. commercial fishing vessels on effort and catch. This data helps us track how many fish are being caught and how many protected species are being interacted with. We may close a fishery if it reaches a previously determined quota for fish catch or protected species interactions. Pacific Islands fisheries are unique in that many of the U.S. commercial fishing vessels employ fishermen from non English-speaking countries. Our observers must learn to overcome this language barrier on top of many other challenges.
In this Q&A, meet NOAA Fisheries observer Jennifer Schultes. She holds the records for both the most days at sea (more than 1,500 days) and longest time on the job (13 years) for a female NOAA Fisheries observer in the Pacific Islands. She got her start as an observer with the North Pacific Observer Program before joining the Pacific Islands Region program in 2013.
What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
Women’s History Month means a lot to me because of the recognition of women being equals in jobs that were once considered men’s work. It’s been hard for me to work this job as a female. But I love it, and I want to hopefully make a difference for other females coming into this position.
I know I can’t change everything but I would love to give the new people, especially females, advice. I want to pave the way. It’s similar to how I look up to Sylvia Earle—I want to make a mark and encourage other females. We can do this. Even when getting smacked in the face with a wave, we can do this.
What is your role within NOAA Fisheries?
I am a contracted fisheries observer with the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. I work onboard commercial longline fishing vessels. I account for the fish that are being caught and the protected species interacted with, collect biological samples, and am NOAA’s eyes and the ears out there.
I’ve been doing this for 13 years, and I have been on every type of vessel in the fleet—from the largest with full galleys and a head (bathroom) to the smallest with only a hot plate for food and a bucket on deck for the bathroom. When I’m ready to go on a boat, [my supervisors] call me to let me know which boats are going out. Before any trip, I go to the boat to check if it has the required Coast Guard safety equipment, from emergency position-indicating radio beacon to life rafts. If the requirements are not met, the vessel cannot fish until all necessary equipment is up to date and inspected.
How did you get interested in seafaring and marine biology?
I grew up in New Jersey, one of the farthest places in the United States from Hawaiʻi. During summers, my dad took me deep sea fishing for flounder. The semester before I graduated from college, I spent 3 months in South Africa. Half of the time there I volunteered in Hans Bay with a white shark cage diving and research company, and the other half I spent in the African bush tracking and collecting data on hyenas, lions, and elephants.
When I began my degree in zoology from Humboldt State University, I believed I would graduate and study mammals. But after my South Africa trip and one ichthyology (study of fish) course, my passion changed towards sharks and fish. I was fascinated with the correlation between form and function in different fish species, especially sharks. When I graduated, I did a presentation on tooth morphology in comparison with jaw anatomy in sharks.
What was your journey to NOAA Fisheries in the Pacific Islands like?
I initially started working after college when I was in the Florida Keys. I was teaching marine biology to kids—teaching them about sharks and the health of the ocean. Eventually, I wanted to make a difference and do my part to save sharks and other marine life. So I went to Alaska to work on the fishing boats [as an observer for NOAA Fisheries]. I spent 3 years there before an observer position opened up in Hawaiʻi.
What is your favorite part of your job?
Making a difference. Nowadays we’re trying different fishing lines, hooks, and leaders to prevent excessive bycatch. I like being a part of the effort to protect the sustainability of the ocean.
What is the most difficult part of your job?
Holding on to relationships and even staying in contact with family. I lost my brother last year, and when I was out on a boat during holidays this year it was difficult being away from family during the anniversary. Most of the boats are crewed and captained by nationalities that don’t speak English, so one can dive deep into their own thoughts when there’s nobody to talk to.
It’s also hard just being a woman out there, where it’s definitely a man’s world. Way before I started working on these boats, I traveled all throughout Southeast Asia, and I learned about the different cultures. So as a female going on the boats, I wear clothing that covers my knees and shoulders at all times. This shows respect for different cultures and also grants me more respect and safety.
What has been your most memorable experience in your job?
I think it was the first time I got a turtle on one of my boats. I tagged it, and I collected a biopsy sample. By NOAA standards I had to keep the turtle on board for 5 hours because some injured turtles can show movement and signs of life after resuscitation. It was that connection with that turtle, getting the biopsy, getting the data, and releasing it, that made it so memorable. It happened 3–4 years ago on my longest trip from Honolulu to San Francisco, which was 49 days.
Some experiences can be scary. I have been involved in fires, taking on water, and even fatal injuries onboard. But even though I freak out, my NOAA training kicks in, so I know what to do in those situations.
Is there a book, quote, or person that influenced you to be the person that you are today?
The marine oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle. The fact that she is in her 80s and still scuba dives is inspiring. She's influential, and she empowers women. She’s pretty hard-core and a rebel with all her achievements.
What advice do you have for new and future observers?
Let everything go and be simple. I think [the isolation] is harder for a lot of people that are hired now because they’re young and grew up with smartphones. I started working on boats without a smartphone—I didn’t have that option. So I would draw and do whatever else I could do for entertainment.
You can make the most of it out there. If you start getting agitated or you start getting stressed, give yourself a second, think positive thoughts, talk with the crew, make jokes, laugh. Find your roots—it’s a great experience. I love being out there because I can finally disconnect.