Fishery Observers

Learn how fisheries observers collect data vital to the sustainable management of our nation’s fisheries.

What does a fishery observer do?

Fisheries observers collect catch and bycatch data from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels. They are NOAA Fisheries’ eyes and ears on the water. These professionally trained biologists monitor and collect data regarding the fish and other sea life that are caught, what is discarded, the areas where a vessel is fishing, and the type of gear used. This information supports science, conservation, and management activities, and also supports compliance with fishing and safety regulations.

Why are observers important?

Because our mission is to ensure the sustainability of our nation’s living marine resources, we work closely with industry to develop effective fishing rules, regulations, and guidelines to ensure compliance. Observers are the only independent data collection source for some types of at-sea information.

What kind of data do observers collect?

Observers collect data on species composition of the catch, weights of fish caught, disposition of landed species, protected species interactions, and more. For example, observers working on processing vessels can often collect stomach content data that would be otherwise difficult to collect. In some fisheries, observers provide valuable assistance to researchers with tagging projects involving sharks, tunas, sablefish, spiny lobsters, swordfish, and even some species of sea turtles.

How are these data used?

Data collected by fisheries observers are used for:

  • Conducting population assessments of fish stocks, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds.
  • Evaluating fisheries impacts on protected species such as marine mammals and sea turtles, and measuring compliance with fisheries regulations.
  • Monitoring experimental fisheries and gear types.
  • Testing bycatch reduction devices.

All observers record their data while onboard the vessel and are debriefed on their data collections following each trip, usually in person. Data are quality checked and entered into databases by the regional programs, and are then made available for use.

Where do observers work?

Fisheries observers and at-sea monitors are placed on select commercial fishing and processing vessels, at shoreside processing plants, and on motherships. Not every vessel carries an observer. When observing, most observers are at sea. Fisheries observers work in U.S. domestic waters up to 200 miles from shore, and on U.S. and international vessels fishing the high seas. Observers monitor all types and sizes of vessels. The duration of an observer’s deployment can vary from one day to a month or more, depending on the fishery.

Who becomes an observer?

We routinely contract with or permit private companies to recruit, hire, and provide observers. Observer providers recruit for candidates who meet the following eligibility criteria:

Education: Candidates must have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university with a major in one of the natural sciences, or with a combination of marine science and fisheries course work with specialized experience.

Physical/medical condition: Candidates must pass a physical and eye examination prior to deployment, to ensure safety while at sea.

Training: They must pass written and/or oral tests and must demonstrate their potential to collect accurate field data, and to react to unfamiliar situations at sea in a professional manner.

Individual programs may have additional requirements, such as calculator and computer skills, current CPR and first aid certification, minimum physical condition standards, U.S. citizenship, and/or agreeing to a background check. For more information on becoming an observer contact the observer providers

What training do observers receive?

Our regional observer programs train observers on species identification, fishery management and regulations, safety, and data collection. Although we do not routinely train observers in international fisheries, we have provided observer training to a number of countries, including Ghana, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, and the Cook Islands.

Is being an observer dangerous?

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, and observers work side-by-side with fishermen on the vessels they monitor. They may be at sea for days, weeks, or even months. And they often work in cramped quarters. Our top concern is ensuring both a professional working environment and the safety of our observers and at-sea monitors.

Is there another way to collect this information?

In some fisheries it is too dangerous or otherwise not feasible to use observers, so data are collected using logbooks, surveys, and electronic monitoring and reporting

Why are fisheries monitored by observer programs?

The Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act require the government to collect data on activities that affect marine resources. Many of the programs also satisfy requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The data collected by observer programs are often the best way to get current data on the status of many fisheries. Without observers and observer programs, there would not be sufficient data in many fisheries to effectively manage fish stocks and also determine fisheries impacts on protected species.

On a global scale, international agreements (such as the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries) identify NOAA Fisheries’ stewardship role in leading collaborative efforts to conserve and protect marine resources. International provisions in the Magnuson-Stevens Act also strengthen the U.S. commitment to monitoring and reducing bycatch.

What is the National Observer Program?

Each year, 47 fisheries are monitored by observer programs logging more than 77,000 observer days at sea. NOAA Fisheries has been using observers to collect fisheries data since 1972. Observers monitor fishing activities on all U.S. coasts, collecting data for a range of conservation and management issues.

We coordinate observer program management through the National Observer Program within our Office of Science and Technology. The National Observer Program provides support to observer programs around the country and seeks to increase their usefulness in supporting the overall goals of NOAA Fisheries. Improvements in data collection, observer training, and the integration of observer data with other research are among the important issues that the National Observer Program works to achieve on a national level.