Part of our job at NOAA Fisheries is ensuring a level playing field for commercial fishermen. Fishery observers and at-sea monitors play a critical role in that process. Observers are professionally-trained biological scientists whose work helps monitor fisheries, assess fish populations, set fishing quotas, and inform management. Their work is vital to our mission.
For observers to be effective, their working conditions must be safe and professional. Although U.S. fisheries are among the safest in the world, we understand the inherent risks that observers face while working in remote and offshore locations. As our eyes and ears on the water, they spend days, weeks, or even months out at sea. Their work can be dangerous and puts them in vulnerable situations. It is our job to make sure their unique workplaces are as safe as possible.
Preparing observers for safe deployments requires an active partnership among NOAA Fisheries, observers, observer providers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the fishing industry. Since the inception of the observer program in the 1970s, we have continually worked to develop and institute world-class training and safety protocols. This includes a zero tolerance policy for observer harassment or assault.
As part of their training, observers are encouraged to report inappropriate behavior. They are given examples of unacceptable behavior and taught what steps they can take if something inappropriate happens. Violators are subject to civil and criminal penalties of up to six months in prison and a $130,000 fine.
On May 3, 2021, Galen Burrell, a commercial fishing deckhand, was sentenced in the Eastern District of North Carolina to six months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually harassing a federal fishery observer. This prosecution is the result of collaboration between NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, the Office of General Counsel, the Observer Program, and the Department of Justice. The successful prosecution of this case highlights our commitment to observer safety, and demonstrates that bad actors can—and will—be held accountable.
The NOAA Office of Law Enforcement will continue to pursue any and all credible allegations concerning an observer’s safety.
Any observer who has experienced harassment or assault should feel empowered to take action. Our Law Enforcement Hotline is always open at (800) 853-1964. There are numerous victim advocacy resources available such as NOAA's Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment Helpline and RAINN.