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April 24, 2017
Contact: Heather Soulen

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NEFOP infographic
Infographic by Heather Soulen

8 Things the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program Does for You

Some of the largest, most profitable fisheries rely on fishery observers to collect, process and manage data and biological samples from commercial fishing trips for stock assessment and management purposes. But, that’s not all they do. Here’s a small behind the scenes look at some of the other things Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP) observers do that directly or indirectly impact you, your family and friends, your wallet, your lifestyle, your community and more.

1. FishWatch

Ever heard of FishWatch? FishWatch provides up-to-date information and facts about U.S. seafood so shoppers and restaurant patrons can make seafood choices that align with their personal eco-friendly goals of sustainably harvested seafood. FishWatch also explains how seafood is harvested using strict monitoring, management and enforcement that helps keep our marine environment healthy and productive while keeping those in the sustainably harvested seafood industry employed. This wouldn’t be possible if NEFOP wasn’t collecting data that assesses the state of the fishery, determines the associated impacts to habitats, and evaluates the associated bycatch. Eco-certification programs have also used observer data to identify and recommend sustainable seafood choices like Northwest Atlantic haddock, spiny dogfish, sea scallops, pollock, Acadian redfish, Atlantic surfclams and ocean quahogs. If supporting businesses that harvest or provide sustainably fished seafood is important to you, then so too is the data NEFOP collects.

observers safety training
Observers in the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP) go through a safety certification program that includes basic and advanced Offshore Safety Training. Photo credit: NEFOP

2. Safety

Each time a fisheries observer sets foot on a commercial fishing vessel, they complete a thorough safety inspection to ensure that required lifesaving equipment like life rafts and emergency locator beacons are present and operational. Because of this requirement, safety checks occur more regularly than the Coast Guard recommendation of once per year. Safety preparedness helps prevent worker accidents and at-sea rescues from stranded or sinking ships. In 2015, the Coast Guard had 37,215 responses in New England. With more frequent checks like those required by NEFOP, tens of thousands of Coast Guard responses could be prevented each and every year. At the end of the day, everyone should have the opportunity to return home safe and sound to their friends and families.

3. Scientific and Research Community

Every year NEFOP receives data requests from federal and state agencies, the commercial fishing industry, and academic and research institutions across the country for fisheries research. In fact, in the last three years the program processed 175 of these data requests. One of those requests came from a collaborative effort between Massachusetts Department of Marine Resources, the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and an industry group called Sustainable Fisheries Coalition. Using NEFOP records of river herring catch, they’re hoping to create a real-time communication system to help commercial fishers avoid catching river herring, a known species of concern, while fishing for other target species.

a pile of haddock
Haddock (Melanogrammus aeglefinus). Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFOP

4. Stock Assessments

Stock assessments use information like total catch which includes both seafood brought back to the dock by commercial fishers for sale (landings), and seafood that is caught and released (alive or dead) during the commercial fishing process. To support accurate and effective stock assessments and fisheries management, well documented total catch information is essential. Responsible commercial fishers understand that people are not only interested in healthy, sustainably harvested seafood, they’re also willing to pay for it. That’s why some fishers want to document their fishing efforts because they work hard to minimize fishing mortality of non-target and sublegal target species when they fish. Observers collect discard information (non-valuable bycatch, over quota, or undersized species) that directly contributes to better stock assessments and effective management, and provides seafood consumers with proof that what they’re feeding their families aligns with their desire for sustainably harvested seafood.

bins full of red crabs
The Atlantic deep-sea red crab fishery in the US operates along the edge of the continental shelf off southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic Bight.Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFOP

5. Exploring New or Revisiting Small Fisheries

When there’s interest in exploring new or revisiting a smaller commercial fishery, NEFOP is there to collect baseline data to determine if it could be -- or still is -- fished sustainably. Over time, conditions can change that could prevent commercial fishing gear from fishing properly, alter bycatch and discard composition, or threaten listed species and stocks of concern. The Atlantic hagfish fishery hasn’t been observed since the early 2000s and there’s been an interest in revisiting this fishery. Because most of the hagfish harvested in the northwest Atlantic is exported to South Korea for food and leather, it’s part of what’s called the ocean economy and blue economy. A sustainable blue or ocean economy only happens when economic activity is balanced with ensuring that the ocean ecosystems can support the fishery while remaining healthy and resilient. Another small emerging fishery is Atlantic deep-sea red crabs. Currently it has a small specialty market, but that could change if chefs, restaurants, and other businesses see a demand for deep-sea red crab. Collecting baseline data at the early stages of a burgeoning fishery is crucial for blue and ocean economies. Not only do the natural resources depend on the data to maintain sustainability, but so do related business like processing plants, utility and service providers, transport and delivery, restaurants, tourism, and their employees.


6. Special Collections

Besides observer’s regular duties, sometimes they’re called upon to collect additional biological samples to fill data gaps, provide baseline data for preliminary research or feed data hungry statistical models for scientists and managers across the country. It’s not unusual for academic universities, research institutions and fisheries managers to encounter funding and budgetary limitations that may affect the quantity and kinds of data they need. By tapping into NEFOP’s experienced observers, specialized sample collection gear and remote fishing locations, scientists are able to acquire the quantity and quality of data they require. Most recently NEFOP has worked with New Hampshire Fish and Game (NHFG), Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association (AOLA), Duke University, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to collect samples for a variety of research studies.

For example, NEFOP was the only program sampling the offshore lobster fleet, prompting AOLA and NHFG to approach NEFOP with a pilot tagging and reproduction study to assess the distribution of egg-bearing female lobsters and their movement in eastern Georges Bank. Another example of a special data collection request is an ongoing study for DFO looking at cod in the eastern Georges Bank. It’s thought that there may be two genetically different populations of cod on Georges Bank - an eastern and a western. Many studies have looked at the western population, but few have looked at the eastern. To determine if there are two genetically different populations, NEFOP observers are collecting DNA samples during the spawning season at targeted locations. If it’s discovered that there are two genetically different populations, managers may have to assess and manage them differently.

observers sorting fish at sea
NEFOP observer (left) sorts catch with Captain Doug (right) of F/V Kestrel out of Connecticut. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFOP

7. Documentation of New Species

In the last year, observers spent about 12,000 days at sea - that’s just under 150,000 at-sea hours and plenty of opportunities to encounter new fish and invertebrate species. Last year  Fisheries Sampling Branch’s Species Verification Program verified 18 new species and just last month an unprecedented eight new species were verified, adding leopard searobin, roughback batfish, cubbyu, silver jenny, blackcheek tonguefish, fringed flounder, spotted whiff, or lesser electric ray to their database. With many factors like warming ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, invasive species, and changes in water quality and food web dynamics affecting fish and invertebrates in the northwest Atlantic and mid-Atlantic, careful documentation of first recordings like these is critical. This kind of data is a relatively untapped goldmine for scientists and managers interested in understanding how and why distributions of marine species shift and what that could mean for the future.

8. Gear Modifications to Reduce Bycatch

When commercial fishers fish, they often catch non-target fish and other marine species called bycatch. Some of this bycatch dies as a result of the fishing process. To solve this, NOAA Fisheries engages and funds research that investigates modifications to commercial fishing gear to reduce bycatch and bycatch mortality. Once gear modifications are required, continued monitoring of modified gear is essential to make sure the design is still fishing as intended even as fishing and ocean conditions change over time. Because NEFOP observers are on commercial fishing vessels outfitted with these new designs, they are well positioned to collect data to evaluate the modified gear’s performance.

When gear modification is successful, it offers an alternative to fishing restrictions while protecting threatened and endangered species as well as stocks of concern. Haddock separator trawls allow specific stocks of concern like Georges Bank cod and yellowtail, winter and witch flounders to escape through large-holed mesh along the bottom of the trawl while retaining haddock. Gear modifications can also help reduce fish processing time on commercial fishing vessels or allow commercial fishing in areas and at times that are otherwise prohibited. As a commercial fisher, when time is money, using modified gear can make a big difference.

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The Northeast Fisheries Science Center conducts ecosystem-based science supporting stewardship of living marine resources under changing climatic conditions. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

NOAA Fisheries Service is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation's living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries Service provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public. Join NOAA Fisheries on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.

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