In the Pacific Islands, observers are deployed on all Hawaiʻi shallow-set pelagic longline trips (targeting swordfish) and 20 percent of the Hawaiʻi and American Samoa deep-set longline trips (targeting tuna). Program staff, working closely with the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, use data collected by the observers to calculate catch and bycatch (unintentional catch) rates of fish and protected species interactions, and produce technical reports. Observers collect other data on the fishery to support research by fisheries scientists at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, aimed at understanding the basic biology of the species encountered, identifying factors that influence the bycatch rates of selected species, and determining the economic factors that affect fishing behavior.
The Pacific Islands Region Observer Program also supports the administration of the South Pacific Tuna Treaty. These activities include deploying Forum Fisheries Agency observers on U.S purse seine vessels, sampling the catch from vessels landing at Pago Pago, American Samoa, distributing U.S. purse seine treaty data, being active members of various international observer groups, and cooperating with the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission.
Hawaiʻi Observer Program
In the late 1980s, the Hawaiʻi pelagic longline fishery for the pelagic species (tuna and swordfish) rapidly expanded due, in part, to the relocation of U.S. longline vessels from the U.S. east coast and the Gulf of Mexico. This unprecedented and uncontrolled increase in fishing activity raised concerns about the impact of longline fishing on fish stocks, and potential competition with other Hawaii fisheries that target the same fish. The early 1990s saw reports of Hawaiʻi longline fishery interactions with endangered Hawaiian monk seals and several species of sea turtles that were listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
The pelagic longline fishery based in Hawaiʻi operates mainly in the Northern Central Pacific Ocean. This fishery is managed according to the Fishery Ecosystem Plan for the Pelagic Fisheries of the Western Pacific (FEP), developed by the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council and approved and implemented by NOAA Fisheries under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. To better understand and reduce impacts of this fishery on protected species, NOAA Fisheries implemented requirements for Federal longline fishing permits, logbooks, and the requirement to carry an observer, if requested by NOAA Fisheries. See Title 50 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 665, Subpart F for the complete set of requirements.
American Samoa Observer Program
In April 2006, the Program deployed the first observers on fishing trips out of Pago Pago, American Samoa. Today, observers provide 20 percent fleet coverage for over 30 federally permitted longline fishing vessels that fish out of American Samoa, primarily for albacore. Observer-collected data have demonstrated that the diversity of species in American Samoa reflects those seen in the Hawaii program, as well as a number of South Pacific species that are new to Hawaiʻi-trained observers.
Due to the remote location of American Samoa, and its limited resources, all vessels assigned with observers undergo vessel safety drills with the observers and the crews. The Observer Program has helped American Samoa vessels get safety exam decals by working closely with the U.S. Coast Guard in certified vessel safety drills and instructions and helping vessels address documented deficiencies. Upon request from the longline and/or purse seine vessel captain/owner, the observer program also performs safety drills and training, whether or not an observer is assigned to the vessel.
In 1985, U.S. and foreign-flagged purse seine vessels began to homeport in Pago Pago. Today, around half of the fleet still makes port calls there, with comprehensive observer coverage. The Observer Program arranges for observer placement, logistics, and gear and data form supply for both the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission Convention Areas. The Program is the primary point of contact for U.S. vessels on reporting requirements, concerns, and Treaty updates, even for the vessels that land in foreign ports. The Program assists the Pacific Community (SPC) with collection of biological samples and tuna tagging. The Program also samples fish from vessels offloading in Pago Pago, providing one of the largest datasets in the world, important for the management of tuna fisheries in the Pacific.
The Pacific Islands Region Observer Program is developing an electronic reporting system that will facilitate the ability to collect and store information in a timely, cost-effective, and sustainable manner. In 2017, the Program tested an app that allows observers to save collected data to a tablet and send it to NOAA Fisheries in near real time. The eReporting platform will include a mobile application for entering the data at point of collection. Eventually, the system will allow transmission of the data from the point of collection to a receiving database, the Pacific Islands Region Observer Program System (PIROPS). PIROPS captures, analyzes and shares with end-users all data collected by observers and program staff.