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Meet Joe Arceneaux, Fisheries Observer Trainer

July 21, 2023

One of NOAA Fisheries’ first observers in the Pacific Islands region, Joe has spent decades training observers to collect data on our fisheries. 

Selfie photo of Joe Arceneaux wearing a hat. Credit: Joe Arceneaux

What do you do for NOAA Fisheries?

Right now, I oversee the training program for at-sea observers in the Pacific Islands. There are three main topics in the training. First, observers need to be able to identify different organisms, whether they're protected species or commercially important species. Second, we spend about 30 percent of the training on marine safety. This includes things like learning how to use, and demonstrating proper usage of, a number of different life saving equipment, such as life rafts and rescue beacons. Then the third part is to combine what they learned about how the fishery operates; how that relates to what they catch; and being able to capture the relevant and important data for what the scientists and managers need. Observers are acting as a data source for information that's not otherwise available or trusted from other sources.

Is there anything about the Pacific Islands Observer Program that's different from the other regions?

Observer programs in other regions may focus on different aspects of data collection such as collecting information on fish weights to manage fishing quotas. While our Pacific Islands program also collects information on commercially important fish species to manage quotas, our major focus is collecting information on interactions between the Hawaiʻi longline fishery and protected marine species, such as sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds. When we first started observing, sea turtles were the primary driver that caused the formation of the program. Over time, the program has shifted to collect information to help understand bycatch of other protected marine species.

Language and culture is another big difference. Hawaiʻi has a diversity of different people from all over the Pacific. The same is true for our fisheries. So you have to get used to being surrounded by different people with different languages and customs. Our training manual includes advice for our observers, especially for those who are brand new to this cultural mix. The way that I put it is that in Hawaiʻi in general, and with our fishery, this is a place in the United States where the West meets the East (and not the East meets the West).

One way the programs are actually incredibly similar is in the safety training that we deliver to the observers. There is a lot of homogeneity in the safety training programs across the country, providing a sort of national standard that allows an observer to get trained in one program and apply that training in another. And that's because the instructors and the programs all went through basically the same certifying body on how to teach marine safety.

How did you become a part of the Pacific Islands Observer Program?

Joe Arceneaux on a boat holding a caught tuna from its tail.
Joe with an ahi caught off the south shore of Oʻahu. Photo courtesy of Joe Arceneaux

My dad was in the Air Force; I grew up in Texas, Virginia, and Alabama. My family's originally from Louisiana. When I was really young, I was the kid always coming out of the pond or river with mud on my face. I was interested in aquatic ecology and zoology. I was all about fish and amphibians and aquatic reptiles. One day in second grade, I took a live snake to school for show and tell. The jar broke, so I just put it in my pocket. I pleaded with the janitor not to kill the snake, and had to go to the principal's office until my mom came and got the snake. I used to go fishing a lot and always had a fish tank with something I caught in it, fish, turtle or salamander.

I graduated with a degree in fisheries management and aquaculture from Auburn University. Since I wanted to have the opportunity to put some of my interests in schooling into practice before I got a “real job” I joined the Peace Corps. I served in Zaire [Democratic Republic of the Congo] for 2 years (1989–1991), teaching tilapia farming and integrated agriculture. After I got out, I spent 5 months traveling with a friend of mine. And somewhere on that trip, he told me about a company that did a lot of environmental monitoring services, including fishery observing. And I was like, “That sounds like a cool thing to do! You do it for a couple of months and then maybe something else comes along.”

And so I started observing in Alaska and did a couple of contracts there. And then I was between work and I filled out a job application for a similar position with a different agency. And I don't know if I saw something on a billboard or heard something on the radio, but I remember filling out the question about my regional preferences and I put Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California. And then I went, “Oh yeah, and Hawaiʻi.” So in 1993, I became one of the very early observers in Hawaiʻi. There were only three of us that did longline trips back then.

Training observers was kind of always part of my job. Initially NMFS would fly some people from the SWR in Longbeach over to do the observer training. And if I was on shore, I would help with the training if I was available. And then I would go out on boats because we didn’t have that many people then. Over time, the training just took on more and more of my time and my observing dropped off. I observed actively in Hawai’i for 7 years.

Is there like a book, quote, or person that influenced your views?

I'd have to say a person that inspired me a lot was a professor I had in ichthyology [study of fish]. He was into taxonomy and zoogeography. His doctorate was on fish in the Orinoco River Basin in South America. What really blew my mind was when I saw some of the fish collection. You expect Amazonian fish to look exotic. In a refrigerated cabinet he had jars of fish from the Southeastern US, filled with a milky white food preservative - color fixative. One day in a lab, took out three or four jars with shiners and 2-3 different darters. He pulled out some males in their full-blown breeding colors. It was as if they came off the set of an animated movie with highlighted colorful spots and lines. I knew those fish, but hot looking like they did. They're only like that for 2 or 3 weeks. Otherwise, they're well camouflaged. That difference between how I knew those fish looked and their breeding colors had a lasting impact.

I also had another friend who was doing his doctorate research. I volunteered as an unpaid field tech for him. We sampled stream snails. I mentioned once that I never really looked at these animals too much. And he says, “Well, let me show you something. Look in the rocks; do you see all that stuff in there? What does it look like?” And I said that it looks like algae. And he said, “It's all snail poop. That is one of the biggest drivers of the microbial communities in this body of water. It essentially feeds everything else”. That’s an example of big things being driven by really small, powerful players and processes. Closer to home in our fishery, there's a long-established connection between storms that come over the North Pacific and plankton blooms. Sometimes there are places where fishermen catch a bunch of fish but very little in the same area at another time. What's driving that catch? Often, it’s the plankton bloom fed by nutrients stirred up from the deep by a passing storm. It’s this kind of interconnection that I find really fascinating.

What does Habitat Month mean to you?

People figured out a long time ago that if you promote the biome or the niche that an animal's living in, you're going to support that animal and all the other little parts and associated animals that go along with it. So a goal is to get a better understanding of how much of the resource you can take or use and not perturb the whole system. For me, I think all those interconnected and often overlooked little bits and pieces that are important. If you're not careful, a really slight action can offset the whole environmental system.

One of the memories from observing that I will take away with me was from when I was out there on the water on swordfish trips. We went far north but no matter how far out we were, if I looked out on the ocean, I could see a piece of trash floating on the water every single day. And I didn't have to look that hard. We're a thousand miles away from land and there's a bottle of dish soap or some other plastic in the water. It’s a sad example of how actions in one place can affect even very remote parts of the world.

Fishing gear debris floating in the ocean.
Marine debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

What are you most proud of in your career with NOAA?

It’s heartening to see how the observer program has been able to help different projects. We were one of the first programs in the country, if not the world, to collect information on marine debris encounters and fisheries impacts at sea. With a lot of sweat equity and honest effort, we took very little and vague guidance, and produced information that is very helpful.

One of the things that I'm really proud of is helping to start the region’s disentanglement response program. I had a temporary detail assignment in NOAA Fisheries headquarters back in 2000. While I was there, there was a stranded humpback whale calf back in Hawaiʻi, and I believe it died. And there had been a couple of entanglements around that time too. We had the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and some high-profile whale deaths in the news. I saw a story about an entangled right whale off the East Coast. A day or two later, I made three phone calls to some NOAA staff and Dave Mattila at Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA. I pointed out that NOAA has people with the tools, equipment, and experience to deal with large whale entanglements, and asked what would it take to get a similar program in Hawaiʻi? That led to a coordinated effort with the Pacific Islands Regional Office protected resources staff and the State of Hawai’i. We had some meetings, borrowed then obtained the tools, and established trainings with USCG, Hawai’i DAR and PIRO. And now we’ve had an entanglement response for 20 years.

What advice do you have for someone interested in a career at NOAA?

I would say that you can't buy or fake field experience. Don’t just read about things and try to understand it that way. You got to get your hands muddy, so to speak. Field work will always help you because you'll understand some of the realities that a lot of our stakeholders—recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, other ocean users—deal with. And the other thing I would tell somebody is to understand how money works. Not so much like money on Wall Street, but managing money as in grants, purchasing, budgeting, that kind of stuff.