Protected Species Observers

Trained professionals that provide monitoring and mitigation services to help a wide range of industries meet their regulatory compliance needs.

Protected Species Observers are trained professionals who provide protected species (animals federally protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act) monitoring and mitigation services to help a wide range of industries meet their regulatory compliance needs. Projects that may require observers include dredging and spoil disposal, underwater construction and demolition, pile driving, explosive blasting, and seismic exploration for oil and gas or renewable energy operations. Although much of the work focuses on marine mammals (such as whales, dolphins or manatees) and sea turtles, observers often encounter a number of other marine species; including but not limited to a variety of sturgeon species, sawfish, and Atlantic salmon.

A Protected Species Observer is different than a Fisheries Observer or a Platform Removal Observer. The training, duties, and approval process is different for each, and not immediately transferable. The Northeast Fisheries Observer Program is conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. The Platform Removal Observer Program is conducted by Southeast Fisheries Science Center’s Galveston Laboratory.

Focused on the protected species compliance and mitigation measures for a given project, Protected Species Observers provide marine wildlife expertise and guidance to the project managers. Observers also document and report on protected species interactions during projects. While compliance requirements and reporting may differ by project, observers should have education and/or experience with protected species, as well as appropriate training to safely perform their required duties. The following sections contain more information about the education or experience, and training that NOAA Fisheries recommends for fulfilling all Protected Species Observer duties.

Basic Criteria to Become a Protected Species Observer

To provide protected species expertise on a project, observers should have an education and/or experience that indicates that they are prepared to identify and appropriately manage protected species issues related to the project. The exact necessary skills may differ from project to project; however, NOAA Fisheries recommends that observers demonstrate either a college education in marine biology or a related field, and/or relevant volunteer or work experience that includes protected species identification and observation.  

Additionally, we recommend that observers prepare for their project-specific roles by receiving training or seeking similar experience in that role. Training that will prepare an observer for his/her position should include:

  1. Overview of the MMPA and the ESA as they relate to the project or activity and protection of protected species (including marine mammals and sea turtles, as well as other listed species that may be found in the project area);
  2. Overview of the project or activity operations, including any relevant safety information or training necessary to fill the role;
  3. Overview of the project or activity-related effects on protected species and mitigation measures;
  4. Overview of the Protected Species Observer program which should outline the roles and responsibilities of the observer on a project, including:
    • Legal requirements (why observers are needed and what they do)
    • Reporting of violations and coercion
    • Assigned duties: 1) What can be asked of the observer 2) What cannot be asked of the observer
    • If applicable: authority of observer to call for shut-down of operations
    • Integrity
    • Professional behavior (code of conduct)
  5. Identification of protected species (includes all listed species that may be encountered in the project area);
  6. Cues and search methods for locating marine mammals, especially whales, and sea turtles; and
  7. Data collection and reporting requirements for the particular job, including forms and reports and where they need to be sent; and associated timing requirements.

NOAA Fisheries does not conduct formal training for Protected Species Observers, but we review the credentials of observer candidates who may be qualified to perform Protected Species Observer duties in the Greater Atlantic and Southeast Regions (i.e., from Maine to Texas).

Other Experience, Training, and Certifications

In addition to the generalized education/experience and training recommended by NOAA Fisheries, there may be project-specific experience, training, or certifications that are required by industry, observer employers, or to meet the compliance needs of the particular project. For example, Helicopter Underwater Egress Training may be required for projects requiring helicopter transportation to the project site, while other projects may require animal tagging and handling experience. Protected Species Observers should consult industry standards and their employer’s guidelines to ensure they are adequately prepared to fulfill their role.

Approval Process

Our approval is based on an individual’s training and experience. In some cases, specific work experience is an acceptable proxy for formal education. If you are interested in receiving approval as a Protected Species Observer in these geographic areas, we recommend that you forward your résumé, pertinent certifications including all relevant training and experience in detail (i.e., dates of employment, names of supervisors, specific duties related to marine mammals/sea turtles/fish, number of animals worked with, and number and type of vessels crewed, etc.), and a cover letter to the address shown below:

Max Tritt 
Protected Resources 
NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office
55 Great Republic Drive
Gloucester, MA 01930

Conditional and Unconditional Ratings by Role or Project Type 

Once approved, some observers will require on-the-job training/experience for certain roles in addition to the basic education/experience and training requirements. For these roles, individuals meeting the basic education/experience and training requirements may be granted “conditional” approval – meaning they meet all other requirements and have been approved for on-the-job training. Once any on-the-job training requirements have been met, observers will receive “unconditional” approval for that role. For example, to gain unconditional approval for a position on a hopper dredge, candidates must have all the basic education/experience and training as well as: (1) 12 hrs of training onboard a hopper dredge under the direct supervision of an unconditionally approved Protected Species Observer; and (2) the candidate may then stand independent watches, but an unconditionally approved Protected Species Observer must be onboard the dredge to provide assistance and confirmation of species identification during the next 48 - watch hours. Upon completion of these requirements, the candidate should submit completion confirmation to us (i.e., name of dredge, name of Supervisor, and date of completion). We will then provide the Protected Species Observer a letter stating that they are unconditionally approved to monitor interactions with listed species aboard hopper dredges, to stand independent watches without supervision, and to train conditionally approved observers.

Trainers and Providers

There are numerous environmental consultants who provide or train Protected Species Observers for industry. Please contact the consultants directly for more information on their programs. Consultants generally submit resumes to NOAA Fisheries for approval consideration, but individuals may also submit their credentials directly to us. NOAA Fisheries does not endorse any consultants or their training programs. However, NOAA Fisheries reviews curriculum and training materials periodically as a means of standardizing the course of instruction. For privacy reasons, NOAA Fisheries does not supply the names of approved observers to consultants or to industry.



National Standards for a Protected Species Observer and Data Management Program: A Model Using Geological and Geophysical Surveys

This report provides recommendations for the Protected Species Observer and Data Management Program (PSO program) for marine geological and

Last updated by Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office on October 01, 2019

Observer Program