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Fisheries Observers: Sentinels of the Sea

April 30, 2012

NOAA Fisheries observers monitor commercial fisheries nationwide, collecting data on catch and bycatch as well as biological samples, information on fishing gear, and economic data. 

Observers must be able to identify species and know multiple legislative mandates, including: 

An observer with two fishing nets. 

Observers Around the Regions

NOAA scientists also use observer data for a first-hand look at how fishing practices affect animals.

The Hawaii-based pelagic longline fisheries targeting swordfish and tunas have been monitored under a mandatory observer program since February 2004 and observer coverage has drastically increased since 2000. 

The Northeast Fisheries Observer program deploys observers on vessels with Federal or state commercial fishing permits operating in inshore state waters within 3 miles (4.8 km) of coast and offshore Federal waters within the United State's EEZ from Maine to North Carolina. Currenty there are 120 observers certified.

In the Southeast U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico NOAA Fisheries has worked closely with the trawl fishing industry to develop turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to reduce sea turtle mortalities, like loggerheads, which are incidentally captured in shrimp trawl gear.

In the Southeast Region the observers gather catch, bycatch, and discard data of large and small coastal sharks targeted by the shark bottom longline fishery from the mid-Atlantic Bight to south Florida as well as throughout the Gulf of Mexico.

The West Coast Groundfish Observer Program was started in 2001 with the goal of collecting data needed to manage shore-based groundfish fisheries off the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts.NOAA scientists also use observer data for a first-hand look at how fishing practices affect animals.




































































What does a Fisheries observer do?

Nomadic by nature, NOAA Fisheries observers call on their innate sense of adventure to report what’s going on at sea. They are NOAA-trained biologists that stay busy onboard commercial fishing vessels, tallying the number of fish kept or discarded, photographing and documenting sightings of protected species, and collecting data on fishing effort. They also note gear type used, locations fished, man hours, and expenditures made. Sometimes they test new fishing gear types or gather genetic samples for research projects. No matter what their daily work may bring, one thing is certain: when they return to shore, they bring a wealth of critical data back to decision-makers at NOAA Fisheries.

How is observer data used in fisheries management?

NOAA Fisheries uses observer data to manage fisheries, monitor the effectiveness of different fishing regulations, and safeguard protected resources across the country. In 2009, NOAA Fisheries had observers onboard monitoring 45 fisheries, spanning the nation from Florida to Alaska and logging more than 70,000 days-at-sea. Today, a new wave of promising technology—video monitoring systems—could bring changes to the way the observer program does business. Whatever the future brings, observers are and always will be an essential part of smart fishery management.

What kinds of observations do they make?

One of the most significant contributions observers make is the collection of data on catch, bycatch, and fishing efforts from commercial fishing vessels. Bycatch is a term for any animals caught incidentally by commercial vessels. Observers have a large hand in producing The National Bycatch Report, an annual publication providing a collection of national bycatch estimates for fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. This report helps NOAA evaluate species management, develop new bycatch reduction research priorities, and implement regulations to protect the future of marine life.

How is the U.S. an international guidepost for sustainable fishery practices and science-based management?

“The U.S. is a model nation in fisheries management in comparison to others, and we have a global role in leading the way for this type of program,” said John Kelly, program manager of the Pacific Islands Regional Observer Program. “NOAA is already working with a handful of communities in Africa, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and throughout the western and southern Pacific region, to help train and place observers on their vessels.”

What are the common threads between programs?

Each regional observer program is unique but central to providing information to manage the nation’s fisheries. Observers everywhere can serve for as long as they like—if they continue to excel on voyages—and many do for years. Typically, they sign up for a four-trip stint. Deployments typically last three to five weeks, but may be longer depending on the program. Rich Kupfer, an observer from 1999 to 2004, now runs training services for the Pacific Islands Region, and is assisted by John Peshon, who debriefs observers after training.

“Keeping observers updated on the latest regulations and safety concerns are some of the top priorities of the Pacific Islands Regional Observer Program,” said Kupfer. “The biggest safety concerns for observers and fishermen alike are the inherent dangers of working on vessels in an extreme environment where safety and convenience are often at the mercy of economic demands and rigorous working conditions.”

“When you have an observer on board, you’re safer,” Kelly said. “Most can provide medical assistance when needed, treating everything from lacerations to minor infections. We are trying to get a strong message out about sustainable fisheries, and the Observer Program is a great way to do it. They are the gatekeepers.” 

To learn more about the National Observer Program visit:

Click on the map below to explore different observer programs across the country.

Stay tuned! We will feature an interview with observer trainer Teresa Turk on her travels to Liberia to train observers soon.