Learn how fisheries observers collect data vital to the sustainable management of our nation's fisheries.
Fishery observers and at-sea monitors are NOAA Fisheries’ eyes and ears on the water. They collect data from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels as well as from shoreside processing plants and receiving vessels known as “motherships.” Observers are professionally trained biological technicians gathering first-hand data on what's caught and discarded by U.S. commercial fishing vessels. They also track interactions with marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. The high-quality data observers collect are used to monitor federal fisheries, assess fish populations, set fishing quotas, and inform sustainable fisheries management. Observers also support compliance with fishing and safety regulations.
Observers and at-sea monitors are professionally trained biological scientists, with a bachelor's degree in natural sciences and rigorous training.
Observers work in U.S. waters, including the vast Alaska fisheries in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, the Mid-Atlantic shark gill net fishery, the Georges Bank scallop and lobster fisheries, and many more.
Observers may spend days, weeks, or even months aboard commercial fishing and receiving vessels gathering first-hand data on what's caught and thrown back by U.S. commercial fishing vessels.
To manage fisheries, data are needed not only for species targeted by a fishery, but for all species making up the impacted ecosystem. Observers are the only independent data collection source for some types of at-sea information, such as bycatch, catch composition, protected species interactions, and gear configuration.
Bycatch or incidental catch is a complex, global issue that threatens the sustainability and resiliency of our fishing communities, economies, and ocean ecosystems. We are committed to minimizing bycatch in U.S. fisheries to ensure our fisheries remain sustainable and that protected species are given the best chance to recover. Observer programs are the only independent (and most common) source for many types of information about fishing operations, including catch and bycatch data.
In fisheries where it is too dangerous or otherwise not feasible to have observers, other data collection methods are used to track catch, including logbooks, surveys, and electronic monitoring and reporting. Electronic monitoring is an important technological advancement that supplements the work fishery observers and at-sea monitors do, while keeping them as safe as possible.
Ensuring observer safety and a professional working environment is a top concern of NOAA Fisheries. We have developed and implemented world-class safety and training programs. Preparing observers for safe deployments requires an active partnership between NOAA Fisheries (including our Office of Law Enforcement), observers, observer providers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the fishing industry.
Data collected on fishery interactions with protected species (marine mammals, sea turtles, certain populations of fish, and endangered seabirds) aid scientists in developing measures to reduce the risk of fisheries interactions.
Sustainable fisheries is a global issue that calls for sharing critical issues among international fishery observer programs, emerging monitoring technologies, and other approaches to fishery-dependent data collection and analyses.
For more than four decades, fishery observers have collected catch and bycatch data from U.S. commercial fishing and processing vessels. They also obtain data from shoreside processing plants and receiving vessels. Today, there are fisheries observer programs covering fisheries of the Greater Atlantic, Southeast, West Coast, Pacific Islands, Northwest, and Alaska. All of these region-based programs fall under our National Observer Program. This allows NOAA Fisheries to address observer issues of national importance and develop overarching policies and procedures that reflect the diverse needs of regional observer programs. This approach ensures we enhance data quality while maintaining consistency in key areas of national importance.
Observers are professionally trained biological technicians. They monitor commercial fisheries and collect data to support science, conservation, and management of U.S. marine fisheries. They also support compliance with fishing and safety regulations. Their work is intense. They may spend days, weeks, or even months aboard commercial fishing and receiving vessels.
NOAA Fisheries contracts with or certifies private observer provider companies to recruit, hire, and deploy observers. These companies provide support services, such as insurance, meal allowances, and travel expenses to observers.
Specific skills vary by job, but include:
Biological specimen data collection
Proper protected species handling.
Ability to tread water and/or swim in an immersion suit and to right and board a life raft
Ability to manage motion- and seasickness
Ability to work long and irregular hours
Aptitude for maintaining diplomacy, professionalism, and interpersonal relations in a challenging environment
Observer candidates typically have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university with a major in one of the natural sciences. This should include at least 30 hours in biological sciences, including a combination of marine science and fisheries course work. The specialized experience must be in the field of fisheries and include functions such as:
Participation in ocean fishing activities
Observing ocean fishing activities
Participation in fishery research cruises
Recording data on marine mammal sightings and fishing activities
Tallying incidental take of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds from fishing platforms
Collecting biological samples and animal specimens
Entering data into a database
Observer candidates must have a physician’s certification that they do not have health or vision problems that would jeopardize their safety or the safety of others while at sea. They must have the capacity to perform strenuous physical labor, at times under arduous conditions.
Individual programs may have additional requirements such as calculator and computer skills, CPR and first aid certification, minimum physical condition standards, U.S. citizenship, and/or a background check.
Certain regional programs, including at-sea monitors in New England and shoreside catch monitors on the West Coast, have specific requirements. They may be reviewed online or by contacting those programs directly.
Prior to deployment, most observers also complete an intensive 2- to 3-week course. It includes training in biology and species identification, data collection, fishing and safety regulations, and at-sea survival skills. Observer candidates must demonstrate their potential to collect accurate field data and to react to unfamiliar situations at sea in a professional manner.
Observers also attend regular professional development and safety briefings to keep their knowledge current.
The health and safety of our observers and at-sea monitors is a top priority for the agency. For observers to be effective, the working conditions must be safe and professional. Since the inception of the observer program in the 1970s, we have continually worked to develop and institute world-class training and safety protocols. Preparing observers for safe deployments requires an active partnership among NOAA Fisheries (including NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and Office of General Counsel), observers, observer providers, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the fishing industry.
In 2018, NOAA Fisheries issued the final report from an independent, comprehensive review of all aspects of fishery observer and at-sea monitor safety and health
Current observers can access observer training manuals from different regional programs, fact sheets from the NOPAT Safety Advisory Committee on specific safety issues, safety training resources, and other information below.
Career Fact Sheet (PDF, 1 page)
Proper Lifting Techniques Fact Sheet (PDF, 1 page)
Safe Boarding of Vessels Fact Sheet (PDF, 2 pages)
Immersion Suit Fact Sheet (PDF, 1 page)
PLB and EPIRB Fact Sheet (PDF, 2 pages)
Electrical and Fire Safety Fact Sheet (PDF, 2 pages)
Bed Bugs Fact Sheet (PDF, 1 page)
Marine Pollution and MARPOL Fact Sheet (PDF, 2 pages)
NOAA Fisheries Observer Safety Training Standards (PDF, 33 pages)
National Review of Observer Programs, Policies, and Procedures (2014) (PDF, 45 pages)
It is critical that all fisheries observers receive consistent safety training. This training must adhere to minimum national standards appropriate for preparing observers for the hazards associated with commercial fishing operations.
The health and safety of our observers and at-sea monitors is a top priority for the agency. In 2016, NOAA Fisheries launched a comprehensive review of all aspects of fishery observer and at-sea monitor safety and health. Led by a team of outside auditors, the review focused on seven key areas:
Practices and policies
The safety review consisted of gathering and assessing information from stakeholders and partners, recommending improvements, and developing continuing self-evaluation tools. The final report was released in 2018.