Learn how fisheries observers collect data vital to the sustainable management of our nation's fisheries.
What does a fishery observer do?
Fishery observers collect first-hand catch and bycatch data from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels. These professionally trained biological technicians are NOAA Fisheries’ eyes and ears on the water. They monitor and collect data on where a vessel is fishing, the type of gear used, and interactions with marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds, and other protected resources. All observers record their data while onboard the vessel. At the completion of the trip, NOAA Fisheries’ debriefers review the data with the observers. Data are quality checked and entered into databases by the regional programs, and are then made available for use.
Why are observers important?
Observers are the only independent data collection source for some types of at-sea activities. The information they collect supports science, conservation, and management activities, as well as compliance with fishing and safety regulations.
What kind of data do observers collect?
Observers collect data on species composition of catch, weights of fish caught, disposition of landed species, protected species interactions, and more. For example, some observers working on processing vessels collect stomach content data to inform fishery life history and diet research; these data would be difficult to collect otherwise. In some fisheries, observers provide valuable assistance to researchers by assisting with tagging projects involving sharks, tunas, sablefish, spiny lobsters, swordfish, and even some species of sea turtles. Observers also provide reports on interactions with banded seabirds, which are banded by scientists and resource managers to track representative data for individuals within a population.
How are these data used?
Data collected by fishery 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, sea turtles, and seabirds.
Monitoring fishing activity so that total allowable catches, annual catch limits, and vessel- or sector-specific quotas are not exceeded.
Monitoring experimental fisheries and gear types.
Testing bycatch reduction devices.
Where do observers work?
Fishery observers and at-sea monitors are placed on select commercial fishing and processing vessels, at shoreside processing plants, and on motherships, although observers do not cover every vessel or facility. Fisheries observers work in U.S. domestic waters up to 200 miles from shore, and to a limited extent 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 few months, depending on the fishery.
Who becomes an observer?
NOAA Fisheries contracts with or certifies private companies to recruit, hire, and deploy 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, including 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. They must have the capacity to perform strenuous physical labor, at times under arduous conditions.
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, specific physical condition standards, U.S. citizenship, and/or agreeing to a background check. For more information on becoming an observer, contact an observer provider.
What training do observers receive?
NOAA Fisheries’ regional observer programs train observers on species identification, fishery management and regulations, safety, and data collection. Although NOAA Fisheries does not routinely train observers who work in international fisheries, the agency has provided observer training for a number of countries, including the Cook Islands, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Kiribati, Korea, Papua New Guinea, and Vietnam.
What are working conditions like for observers at sea?
U.S. fisheries are among the safest in the world, and NOAA Fisheries’ top priority is ensuring the safety of our observers and at-sea monitors. Still, working on a commercial fishing vessel involves unusual challenges. Observers work side-by-side with fishermen on the vessels they monitor, and may be at sea for days, weeks, or even months, often having to do their jobs in very cramped quarters and on rough seas. The National Observer Program has created many resources to help observers adapt to conditions on a commercial fishing vessel, including a series of fact sheets on topics such as proper lifting techniques, safe boarding of vessels, immersion suits, electrical and fire safety, and bed bug mitigation.
Is there another way to collect this information?
For smaller boats that have limited deck and bunk space for observers, or in other fisheries where it is not feasible to use observers, data can be 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. Without observers and observer programs, there would not be sufficient data in many fisheries to effectively manage fish stocks and determine fisheries’ impacts on protected species.
On a global scale, international agreements (such as the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries) outline 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?
NOAA Fisheries has been using observers to collect fisheries data since 1972. In 2019, 850 observers monitored 54 fisheries, logging more than 71,600 observer days at sea through regional observer programs around the country. The National Observer Program provides support for the specific needs of regional programs while developing policies and procedures at the national level to best fulfill NOAA Fisheries’ mission. Improving data collection, setting observer training standards, and integrating observer data with other research are among the important issues the National Observer Program addresses.