West Coast Region Observer Program
The West Coast Region Observer Program (WCROP) places NOAA Fisheries-trained observers aboard fishing vessels primarily to monitor the incidental capture of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds.
The West Coast Region Observer Program (WCROP) places NOAA Fisheries-trained observers aboard fishing vessels primarily to monitor the incidental capture of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Observers also record details on fishing activity, gear configuration, and the catch and disposition of target and non target fish species. Observers collect biological samples for use in life history studies and stock assessments performed by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.
Fisheries observers are deployed under the authority of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Magnuson- Stevens Fishery and Conservation Management Act.
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the overall program, implementing national Observer Program policies, and designing the program consistent with regulations and/or recommendations about coverage for individual fisheries. NOAA Fisheries conducts observer training, initial debriefing, and data management. A NOAA Fisheries-approved contractor is responsible for observer recruitment and employment, monitoring vessel activity, observer deployment, logistics, and delivery of observer data to NOAA Fisheries.
Vessel owners and operators are responsible for contacting the designated contractor to make arrangements for mandatory placement of trained observers aboard their vessels.
For more information on the West Coast Region Observer Program, contact Charles Villafana (Observer Program Manager) by email: Charles.Villafana@noaa.gov or telephone: 562.980.4033; or Jody Van Niekerk (Program Lead Trainer) by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone: 562.980.4065.
Eastern Pacific Ocean (EPO) Tuna Purse Seine Fishery
NOAA Fisheries began fielding observers in 1976 aboard U.S. tuna purse seine vessels fishing in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, until 1994 when this authority was delegated to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission. The Program was established under the Marine Mammal Protection Act out of public concern for the incidental catch of small cetaceans during tuna fishing operations. This fishery primarily targets Skipjack and Yellowfin Tuna, although Bluefin Tuna are taken when available and quotas are established.
The seine has floats along the top line with a lead line threaded through rings along the bottom. Once a school of fish is located, a skiff encircles the school with the net. The lead line is then pulled in, "pursing" the net closed on the bottom, preventing fish from escaping by swimming downward. Purse seines can reach more than 6,500 ft (2,000 m) in length and 650 ft (200 m) in depth, varying in size according to the vessel, mesh size, and target species. Large purse seine gear is used in the eastern tropical Pacific and the western and central Pacific.
The fishery is monitored by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, and NOAA Fisheries. Fisheries observers from the WCROP may be deployed in the future.
California Large Mesh Drift Gillnet Fishery (LMDGN)
Since 1990, we have placed observers aboard the California Large Mesh Drift Gillnet (DGN) fishery targeting swordfish and Common Thresher shark. Observers have been placed on DGN vessels to document the incidental capture of marine mammals and sea turtles.
The DGN fleet generally consists of vessels which are 35 - 65 feet in length. The net consists of a mesh, the size of which can be no less than 14 inches, measured stretched out from opposite ends. Generally most DGN fisherman use a net with a mesh size of 19 - 21 inches. The fish entangle themselves by swimming into the net due to its “slack”, rather than being corralled by the net.
The mesh is suspended between a float line (top) and a lead line (bottom). The mesh material is made up of a multifilament synthetic twine with a specific size or pound test rating. The net length is limited to 1000 fathoms (6000 ft) in length and is generally up to 140 meshes deep. The primary season for DGN is from August 15th through January 31st. The fishery is Federally managed by a limited entry permit system, which must be renewed annually. Each permit is linked to the fisherman and not the vessel.
Diagram of California Large Mesh Drift Gillnet Design by Jody Van Niekerk, NOAA Fisheries
California Set Gillnet Fishery (SGN)
This fishery is managed by the State of California (i.e., it is not a federal fishery), and it is a limited entry fishery, primarily conducted in southern California in federal waters (i.e., outside of three nautical miles). Since 1990, we have placed observers on the SGN fishery targeting California halibut, white seabass, California barracuda, and yellowtail to document the incidental capture of federally protected marine mammals and sea turtles.
The net consists of a monofilament nylon mesh which is fixed to the bottom. Fish are entangled in the mesh rather than being corralled by the net. California halibut, California barracuda, and yellowtail are caught with a net of 3.5 inches mesh size or greater. White Seabass is caught with a net of 6.0 inches mesh size or greater. The maximum allowable net length is 1,000 fathoms (6,000 ft).
The state’s SGN fishery operates in waters less than 70 fathoms or outside one mile, whichever is less, around the Channel Islands and the area outside three nautical miles offshore of the mainland coast. Also included is the area within three nautical miles off of any man-made breakwater, between a line extending due west from Point Arguello and a line extending due west from the Mexican border.
The WCROP placed observers on vessels departing from Monterey Bay from 1999 to 2000 and continues to place observers periodically on SGN vessels departing from ports in southern California.
California Deep-Set Pelagic Longline (DSPLL) and Shallow-Set Pelagic Longline Fisheries (SSPLL)
Observers have been placed aboard the California DSPLL fishery targeting Bigeye Tuna on the high seas since 2005 to document the incidental capture of sea turtles and seabirds. SSPLL vessels require 100% observer coverage and fish mostly out of Hawaii, under the Hawaiian longline permit.
However, more and more vessels are moving to California to fish under the West Coast longline permit. The WCROP will continue the 100% required coverage as these vessels migrate to the California coast.
Diagram of Deep Set Long-Line Gear by Jody Van Niekerk, NOAA Fisheries
Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery
Fisheries observers were deployed on coastal pelagic species purse seine vessels from 2004 to 2008 to document the incidental capture of marine mammals. These vessels target Pacific sardine, northern anchovy, and market squid. It is a Federally regulated fishery which occurs off of the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California. The seine consists of floats along the top line with a lead line threaded through rings along the bottom. Once a school of fish is located, a skiff encircles the school with the net.
The lead line is then pulled in, "pursing" the net closed on the bottom, preventing fish from escaping by swimming downward. Purse seines can reach more than 6,500 ft (2,000 m) in length and 650 ft (200 m) in depth, varying in size according to the vessel, mesh size, and target species.
Recreational and Bait
We conducted pilot observer programs from 2004 to 2007 to observe west coast commercial passenger fishing vessels (used for recreational fishing trips) and the west coast albacore troll/bait boat fishery.
Exempted Fishing Permits Observing
The WCROP has implemented the observer program for the new Standard Deep Set Buoy Gear (SDSBG) and Linked Deep Set Buoy Gear (LDSBG) West Coast swordfish fisheries Exempt Fishing Permits (EFP’s) since early 2017.
Standard Deep Set Buoy Gear (SDSBG)
Over the last several years the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research (PIER), along with a group of DGN and Harpoon fishermen, have been developing a new gear that can target swordfish with limited bycatch.
This gear is called Standard Deep Set Buoy Gear (DSBG) and is modeled after similar gear being used off of Florida and modified to the unique aspects of our West Coast/California ecosystem. One full set of DSBG consists of up to 10 individual pieces of gear that can be simultaneously individually soaked, over an approximate radius foot-print of 5 nautical miles (nm). Each buoy gear piece consists of 200 m – 400 m of vertical mainline (2.8 mm diameter or greater) attached to a 3.6 kg (8 lb.) lead weight. A maximum of up to three ~8 m to 10 m branching gangions can be used at different depths, all of which must be below the mixed layer (>90 m) depth line. An illumination source (e.g., cyalume or power light) may be used proximal to each gangion if desired.
Two of the branching gangions are considered to be targeting swordfish at depths between 200 m and 400 m. A third optional hook can be fished at >90 m to target Opah, common thresher shark or other marketable HMS species. All hooks shall be either 16/0 or 18/0 circle hooks. Bait may consist of either finfish (e.g., mackerel), squid, or artificial lures.
The SDSBG surface floatation and catch identification system consists of a minimum of three floats with a flag and flasher or radar reflector. This design follows that of previous SDSBG experiments (see, Sepulveda et al., 2015). To facilitate active tending, prevent gear loss, and mitigate the impacts to non-target species, vessels must remain proximal to SDSBG at all times. The mandated distance is <3 nm from any one piece of gear during daytime sets.
The WCROP has been involved in the development of the fishery for several years. Observers are currently being placed on participating EFP vessels as the fishery moves towards becoming an authorized fishing gear on the West Coast.
Diagram of Deep Set Buoy Gear by Jody Van Niekerk, NOAA Fisheries
Linked Deep Set Buoy Gear
With the development of SDSBG, the gear did bring two limitations to light. First, it was realized that the gear is best used during good to moderate weather conditions, as it was difficult to keep the gear in view or even manage it in rough weather conditions. Second, the gear only positioned one hook at target depth for swordfish, thus limiting the number of which can be caught at any one time.
Again, PIER designed a new type of gear, the LDSBG, which is based on the SDSBG, except, three hooks instead of one are placed at target depth for swordfish. One piece of gear consists of two sets of vertical buoys with a connecting horizontal line with three gangions attached, essentially hanging in between at target depth (200-400 m). There can be no more than three hooks per piece of linked gear. The gear has a U-shape and can be linked up to other pieces of linked gear.
There can never be more than ten pieces of gear in the water at any one time, the same as for SDSBG. LDSBG and SDSBG can be fished at the same time, the sum of which cannot exceed ten total pieces of gear, irrespective of the ratio with which it is fished, 2:8, 3:7 etc. All other elements regarding hook size, line thickness, and buoys used are essentially the same as for DSBG.
The key advantages to LDSBG is that being linked, it addresses the limitations stated above for SDSBG. It is easier to use in rough weather and places three hooks at target depth instead of one.
Diagram of Linked Buoy Gear by Jody Van Niekerk, NOAA Fisheries
Data Summaries and Reports
California/Oregon Drift Gillnet Fishery Catch Summaries
California Set Gillnet Fishery Catch Summaries
- 2007 - 2017 (Summaries available for 2007, 2010-2013, and 2017)
- National Observer Program Annual Reports
Information For Observers
Prospective observers must have at a minimum:
- A bachelor's degree or higher from an accredited college or university with a major in one of the natural sciences.
- Successfully completed a minimum of 30 semester hours or equivalent in applicable biological sciences.
- Successfully completed at least one undergraduate course in math or statistics.
- Experience with data entry on computers.
New observers are required to take a two-week training with NOAA Fisheries. The course is typically conducted in September or October each year in the Long Beach Regional Office and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla and covers the following topics:
- Safety equipment function
- Safety at sea
- Species Identification
- Protected species handling & data collection methods
- Fishing gear characteristics
- Data forms, data collection & data entry
- Biological sampling
Returning observers are required to complete a refresher training course annually NOAA Fisheries. The course is typically conducted in August and lasts two or three days.
Information For Vessel Owners and Operators
Pre-Trip Notification Requirement
Owners/operators of vessels in the following fisheries are required to notify Frank Orth & Associates before departing on any fishing trip. Frank Orth & Associates can be contacted at 800.522.7622 or 562.427.1822.
- California Large-Mesh Drift Gillnet: 48 hours prior to departure
- Southern California Small-Mesh Drift Gillnet: 48 hours prior to departure
- Southern California Set Gillnet: 48 hours prior to departure
- California Deep-Set Pelagic Longline: 24 hours prior to departure
- Standard Deep Set Buoy Gear and Linked Deep Set Buoy Gear: 48 hours prior to departure
U.S. Coast Guard Safety Decal Requirements
Observers may not depart on a fishing trip aboard a vessel which does not comply with United States Coast Guard (USCG) safety requirements or that does not display a current Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Examination decal [ 50 CFR§600.746(b)]. All vessels carrying an observer must meet USCG safety requirements and display a current safety decal. Vessels that do not meet these requirements are deemed unsafe for purposes of carrying an observer and must correct noted deficiencies prior to departing on a fishing trip.
West Coast Region Observer Program Staff:
Jody Van Niekerk
Program Lead Trainer and Data Manager
Frank Orth & Associates