Northeast Fisheries Observer Program: FAQs and Photos

seabirds flocking around a vesselSeabirds flock around a vessel; an observer takes note. Credit: NE Observer Program, NEFSC / NOAA

The fishery observers are recruited and deployed through an independent firm under contract to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. The Fisheries Sampling Branch staff oversees observer training, translates data requirements from the Center's research programs into a detailed schedule of fisheries to be sampled and at what frequency, manages data collected by observers, and provides qualified researchers with audited data files and summaries. Summaries of fishery observer data, appropriately aggregated so individual vessels cannot be identified, are provided to scientists and analysts of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Regional Office and the Regional Fishery Management Councils to support quantitative evaluations of various management actions. Individual vessel records are strictly confidential and are not made available.

Fishery observers themselves have varied backgrounds. A large number are recent college graduates with a concentration in biology. Some have extensive practical experience in commercial fishing or other maritime occupations. Fishery observer training is comprehensive. An initial three week training course is given by the Fisheries Sampling Branch staff with the assistance of experts in a variety of fields. Fishery observers are instructed in the identification of fish,mammal, bird, turtle, and invertebrate species, as well as gear identification and measurement, marine safety, and survival skills.

Priorities for sampling of various fisheries are determined by marine resource management priorities identified at the national level (such as endangered or protected species), by regional fishery management councils, and by the region's scientists who are called on to evaluate status of marine populations and the businesses that depend on them. Through the 1990's most of the observers 'sea days' were spent monitoring fixed-gear commercial fisheries for takes of protected species (such as harbor porpoise takes in the Gulf of Maine sink gillnet fishery). However, beginning in 2001 sampling in the Northeast fisheries not related to protected species increased substantially and currently includes monitoring the discard and bycatch in the groundfish, summer flounder, northern shrimp, and sea scallop fisheries in the Gulf of Maine,the Mid-Atlantic and on Georges Bank. Plots of the locations of observed trips by fishery can be seen at Observer Trips By Statistical Areas.

The fisheries observer program is a proven, valuable source of information on the region's fisheries,unobtainable by any other means. Data acquired by this program have been important in identifying the species and size selectivity of several marine fisheries in the Northeast, and in reducing bycatch of protected species. Furthermore, these data have improved biological and economic assessments of the region's fisheries.

The cooperation of vessel owners,captains, and crew in taking observers onboard and supporting their data collection is instrumental in the success of this program. Most recognize that the goal of the program is to provide managers with the data needed to ensure a sustainable fishery for generations to come.

Landings from commercialfishing trips have been sampled in Northeast ports for more than 100 years. However, identifying the species and numbers of fish landed and sold in our ports is only part of the story. Managing fisheries and the effects of fishing on the ecosystem requires information not only about what is landed, but also about what is not landed. We also need to know when and where and in some cases, how these fish are caught. The objectives of the Fisheries Sampling Branch are to collect operational fishing data,biological data and economic data from the various fisheries. Additionally, in support of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, the observers monitor interactions with protected and endangeredspecies to ensure continued survival of these animals.

common dolphinA common dolphin. Credit: NE Observer Program, NEFSC / NOAA

Marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds are protected under a variety of federal statutes intended to reduce the risk of harm to these animals by fishing and other human activities at sea. Chief among these statutes are the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Fisheries Sampling Branch monitors marine fisheries to identify those that take protected species, and if necessary, help develop ways to reduce these takes. [Note: The term "take" is defined in the MMPA as "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal. It has a similar meaning under the Endangered Species Act, which applies to all wild plants and animals, including those in the ocean.] Monitoring efforts in the Northeast region have been concentrated in several fisheries: groundfish gillnet in the Gulf of Maine, gillnet fisheries in the mid-Atlantic, swordfish longline, pelagic drift-net, and pelagic pair-trawl. Fishery observers document each take of a protected species during a fishing trip as well as other catch and discard information when possible. Total takes of protected species can be estimated from the samples obtained on observed trips in a particular fishery and expanded to the whole fleet. The selection of which fishing vessels to cover is made based on historic information of takes in the area, the type of fishing gear used, the season and amount of fishing effort in the area. The number of days to be sampled by area and season can be found in the "Data/Reports" section in the right-hand panel.

When fishery observers are deployed aboard commercial vessels, they take detailed measurements of various attributes of the fishing gear including how it is rigged and deployed. These measurements are important for two reasons.

First, by documenting variables such as mesh size, number of hooks, time of trawl tow, hanging dimension (e.g., square vs. diamond mesh) etc., in relation to catch attributes (e.g., quantity, species composition, size distribution of catch) it is possible to conduct statistical analyses of the factors that result in high (or low) rates of discard, species mix, changes in catch rate, etc.

Second, gear performance observations, when collected over time, can be used to better calibrate catch-per-unit-effort abundance measures. For example, if the average size of nets, duration of tow, ground-cable length, etc., change over time, these may have a direct effect on catch per day fished by the fleet (even for same sized vessels). Given sufficient information, these factors can be included in stock assessment analyses to provide a more complete and accurate picture of fishing intensity and effectiveness.

harbor seal group in MaineA group of harbor seals in Maine. Credit: NE Observer Program, NEFSC / NOAA

Catches brought aboard fishing vessels are typically sorted by marketable species and sizes, and the rest of the catch is thrown back, or discarded. In most of the Northeast commercial fisheries the discarded animals are dead. Discarding may occur for a number of reasons; fish may be smaller or larger than the allowable legal size, fish with little market value, species that can't be legally possessed (e.g., marine mammals and protected fish species) and those marketable fish for which the vessel has already caught its legal limit for the trip. To get an accurate picture of the status of a fish stock, and the influence of fishing on the ecosystem, it is important to gather biological information not only about what and how much is landed and removed from the ecosystem, but also about what is not landed.

Accompanying fishermen on regular commercial trips is the most reliable method of acquiring data on the quantity and species composition of discards, as well as information on the specific reasons why animals are discarded and under what conditions discarding occurs. With these data, it is possible to more completely understand the effects of fishing on the whole stock, and to better estimate the potential biological and economic benefits of changes in methods of managing the fishery such as minimum legal sizes and trip quotas for individual species.

Biological samples form the basis of what we know about fish population change over time. Examples include weights and lengths of individual fish, reproductive status, and collecting hard parts (scales, otoliths, and/or vertebrae) for aging. These data are collected annually from fish collected during scientific surveys conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Information about these scientific surveys can be seen at the NEFSC Ecosystems Survey Branch website. These data are collected independently of the commercial fisheries, and also through the fishery observer program from the discarded as well as retained portion of a vessel's catch. The resulting data allow scientists to characterize catch by species, size, age, gender,and frequency, and then use that information, in conjunction with that from other data sources, to compile a picture of the entire population.

observer performing dutiesObserver performing duties. Credit: NE Observer Program, NEFSC / NOAA

The fishing industry is always looking for methods to reduce the incidental catch of unwanted species, including protected species. Conducting and evaluating the performance of novel or experimental gear is another responsibility of fishery observers. Sometimes it is possible to reduce unintended catch during fishing operations by changing the way gear is constructed and/or used. To properly evaluate new gear types and methods, an experimental version must be tested under a variety of conditions likely to be encountered during a typical commercial trip. Testing not only demonstrates what effects are achieved, but also whether the gear can be safely and efficiently used.

In the Gulf of Maine northern shrimp fishery, for example, the Nordmore grate was tested and subsequently required on shrimp trawls to reduce the take of juvenile groundfish. Fishery observers participated in the initial gear trials, and have continued to monitor the fishery since use of the grate became mandatory. Subsequent data collected by the fishery observer program indicate significant reductions in finfish bycatch from trawls using the grate.

Experimental fisheries typically occur when, in order to gather needed data, an experiment must be conducted using gear or methods that would otherwise be prohibited by existing regulations. For example, an experimental fishery occurred in Cape Cod Bay where small mesh nets were rigged to catch whiting, but avoid bycatch of groundfish such as cod, haddock, and flounder. The experiment was carefully monitored and eventually became an exempted fishery; one that has less than five percent catch of regulated groundfish.

Similarly, fishery observers were critical during experiments that evaluated the effectiveness of acoustic alarms, or pingers, in reducing harbor porpoise entanglements in the groundfish sink gillnet fishery. The studies found that harbor porpoise bycatch was reduced by more than 90% with the use of pingers, and resulted in their mandatory use in the fishery during times when harbor porpoise bycatch would otherwise be high. Fishery observers continue to monitor pinger effectiveness in bycatch reduction, and their use continues to mitigate this risk to a protected marine mammal.

What is the economic health of a fishery? Revenue data (e.g., landed value) collected from fishermen and dealers in the ports provide the income side of the economic equation. However, data on the costs of fishing are equally important. Fishery observers solicit information from participating vessel owners and captains regarding the costs of items used on a trip (e.g., ice, fuel, gear, and bait), and fixed costs (e.g., repairs, electronics, and insurance). The intent of these studies is to better understand the economic health and efficiency of fishing. This information is extremely important in the fishery management process, because it allows quantitative analyses of economic impacts of various management options. Federal rules require that the economic benefits of regulation exceed the costs of such measures. Net economic benefits to the nation comprise benefits and costs to the producers (e.g., fishermen), and benefits and costs to the consumers. The fisheries observer program provides an important source of contact with knowledgeable individuals in the industry best able to provide these data.

FSB staff at industry outreach eventFSB staff at industry outreach event. Credit: NE Observer Program, NEFSC / NOAA

Fishery observer programs have always provided an excellent channel for communication between fishermen and fishery scientists.

In the 1970s and 1980s, some scientists went along on commercial trips for specific experiments or simply to obtain first-hand knowledge of fishing operations. Although valuable to the scientists, the resulting data came from only a few dozen trips in a year.

Today's fishery observer program is larger and more comprehensive in both the frequency of trips and the types of data collected. The program remains an important link between scientists and fishermen. Ideas, complaints, and information communicated between observer, captain, and crew are a valuable source of information for all parties and we hope to strengthen this aspect of the program in the future.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, international vessels were allowed within the U.S. Economic Exclusionary Zone (EEZ, better known as the 200-mile limit.) Under these agreements, the international vessel operator paid a set fee per ton of fish landed,and assumed the costs of providing 100% U.S. fishery observer coverage on their vessels. The fishery observers collected information similar to that presently obtained from domestic trips through the fishery observer program.

U.S. law still provides ways for fishery managers to allow international vessels to fish in the U.S. EEZ when there is a surplus of fish not likely to be taken by domestic fleets. At present, there is little international fishing activity in federal waters off the Northeastern U.S., but there is growing interest in joint ventures with U.S. companies for under utilized fish resources, particularly those with established international markets. When these fishing operations do occur with international partners in the EEZ, the fisheries observer program continues to monitor them.

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(File Modified Jan. 10 2018)