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The Role of the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program in the Community Development Quota Program

(Quarterly Report for April-May-June 2000)

by Todd M. Loomis

members of Fisheries Observer Program (22733 bytes)
Martin Loefflad, Glenn Campbell, Alison Vijgen, and Mike Brown of the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program.

The Community Development Quota (CDQ) program, implemented by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 1992, is designed to provide western Alaska communities with greater benefits resulting from commercial utilization of the fishery resources of the Bering Sea.  The following article provides a brief description of the evolution of the CDQ program and how the program has affected the Alaska Fisheries Science Centerís North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program and industry.
CDQ Program Evolution

The pollock CDQ program was established by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) as part of the inshore/offshore walleye pollock allocations in 1992.  The program was developed originally in an effort to enhance commercial fishing activities in western Alaska communities with limited economic opportunity.  In the first year of the program, 7.5% of the pollock total allowable catch (TAC), approximately 100,000 metric tons, was divided among 56 communities, organized into six CDQ groups.  According to the Bering Sea Fishermenís Association 1999-2000 Report, the pollock CDQ program alone has generated approximately $20 million in annual revenues for CDQ groups since 1992.

With the success of pollock CDQ, the NPFMC expanded the program several times.  Allocations of halibut and sablefish CDQ were made in 1994, followed by crab and other groundfish species in 1995.  The CDQ quota for all groundfish species, with the exception of pollock, is set at 7.5% of their respective Total Allowable Catch (TACs) as determined by NMFS.  In 1999, the American Fisheries Act expanded the CDQ pollock quota to 10% of the TAC.   Popular CDQ groundfish target fisheries include pollock, Pacific cod, Greenland turbot, Atka mackerel, yellowfin sole, rock sole, and Pacific ocean perch.  The halibut and crab CDQ allocations are determined each year by the International Pacific Halibut Commission and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), respectively (Table 1 below).

Table 1.  CDQ quotas in metric tons for Pacific halibut,
Tanner crab, and select groundfish species for 2000.

Common name

Scientific name


Pacific halibut

Hippoglossus stenolepis


Tanner crab

Chionoecetes opilio



Anoplopoma fimbria


Walleye pollock

Theragra chalcogramma


Pacific cod

Gadus macrocephalus


Atka mackerel

Pleurogrammus monopterygius


Yellowfin sole

Limanda aspera


Rock sole

Lepidopsetta bileneata


Greenland turbot

Reinhardtius hippoglossoides


Arrowtooth flounder

Atheresthes stomias


Pacific ocean perch

Sebastes alutus


1weight of fish headed and gutted.

 In order to be eligible for the CDQ program and receive allocations, communities must meet certain criteria.  Each community must:

  1. be located within 50 nautical miles of the Bering Sea

  2. be an Alaskan Native community

  3. have residents who conduct more than half of their commercial or subsistence fishing in the Bering Sea

  4. have no previous processing or harvesting capability beyond small boat commercial fishing.

Currently 65 communities are eligible to receive CDQ allocations
(Figure 1 below).

map of CDQ communities
Figure 1.  Western Alaska CDQ communities and groups
(click to enlarge). 

Each CDQ group is required to submit a Community Development Plan for approval by the state of Alaska and NMFS.  Proceeds the communities receive from the allocations must be used to start or support commercial fishery or related businesses.

Today, as a result of CDQ revenues, many CDQ groups own or partly own vessels and fishing companies.  CDQ groups also partner with independent vessels to harvest much of their CDQ allocation.  In such situations, a vessel pays the group royalties for the CDQ species it harvests.  Unlike open access fisheries, which are managed by pooling data within areas and among all vessels participating in a fishery, CDQ quotas are managed individually by CDQ groups and collectively by NMFS.  In general, CDQ groups divide their quota among several vessels, and those vessels are responsible for monitoring the harvest of their share.  As a result, the CDQ program requires a higher level of accountability than any other fishery managed by NMFS.  To monitor CDQ quotas, NMFS and the CDQ groups use data collected by NMFS-certified groundfish observers.  While observers work for independent companies that contract with industry in order to meet proscribed observer coverage requirements, their sampling duties and field activities are established through the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program.  The Observer Program manages observer training, field support, debriefing, data quality assurance, and data management.
Effects on the Observer Program and Industry

Data collected by observers are used by the NMFS Alaska Region Office to manage groundfish and halibut CDQs. Observers collect vessel-specific information on where fishing occurs, how much fish is caught, the species composition of catch, and other pertinent biological information.  Observer data is used exclusively to manage CDQ quotas on catcher/processor vessels that discard some of their catch at sea (non-target species).  For this reason, catcher/processor vessels are required to have every CDQ set or haul sampled by an observer.  A combination of observer data and delivery weights from processing facilities are used to manage CDQs caught by non-trawl (longline and pot) and trawl catcher vessels.  These vessels deliver all catch, with the exception of prohibited species (salmon, halibut, herring, king crab, and Tanner crab), to processing facilities where the catch is weighed.  For these vessels, observer data are used to determine the amount of prohibited species taken, whereas weights from the processing facility are used to determine the amount of remaining catch.

With assistance from the Observer Program, the NMFS Alaska Region Office developed regulations supporting CDQ fisheries monitoring and management that specifically addressed:

  1. observer coverage requirements for vessels and plants

  2. equipment and operational requirements for vessels

  3. observer training and experience requirements.

In part, to support CDQ catch accounting requirements,  program staff modified the design and implementation of the observer data retrieval system.  Each of these issues are addressed in Table 2 below.

Table 2.  Observer coverage requirements by vessel type. 

Vessel Type

CDQ Observer Coverage Requirement

Catcher vessel <60í


Catcher vessel (non-trawl) >60í

1 CDQ observer or 1 lead CDQ observer1

Catcher vessel (trawl) >60í

1 CDQ observer

Catcher/processors and motherships

2 observers (1 lead CDQ and 1 CDQ observer)

Shoreside processor

1 CDQ observer

1Non-trawl catcher vessels are offered two options in the regulations.  If  the vessel chooses to sort at sea they are required to provide an observer  sampling station and carry a lead CDQ observer.

 Observer Coverage Requirements

Certain classes of CDQ vessels are required to carry two CDQ observers, while other classes and shoreside plants are required to carry one (Table 2 above).  These requirements are based largely on the type of fishing each vessel class does and the amount of work an observer can be expected to do.  Regulation requires that every haul or set be sampled on catcher/processors and motherships and that every CDQ delivery be observed.  Most vessels and plants operate 24 hours per day, making it impossible for one observer to complete the required sampling duties under such conditions.  Given the CDQ catch-monitoring requirements and vessel operations, catcher/processor and mothership vessels are required to carry two CDQ certified observers while catcher vessels, delivering unsorted catch to shoreside processing plants, are required to carry one.   When two CDQ-qualified and trained observers are present, one must further qualify as a lead CDQ observer.  Shoreside plants are required to support a CDQ-qualified observer when CDQ deliveries are made.

Equipment and Operational Requirements

fishery observer kim demorett
Observer Program staff member
Kim DeMorett inspects a passage
on a trawl catcher/processor.

Industry was required to make significant changes in order to participate in CDQ fisheries. Catcher/processors (trawl and longline) and motherships have two primary requirements. These vessel types are required to have a NMFS-certified observer sampling station and a motion-compensated platform scale.  In addition, trawl and mothership vessels are required to have certified motion-compensated flow scales.

The Observer Program oversees the certification of observer sampling stations, and the NMFS Alaska Region Office administers the scale program.  Each vessel must be inspected annually  prior to participating in CDQ fisheries.

Observer sampling stations were first required on catcher/
processor and mothership vessels in 1998.  Sampling stations are defined by specific criteria developed by Observer Program staff and codified in the regulations.  Each station must include a motion-compensated platform scale, accessible sample collection points, must meet minimum space requirements, and have a table, hose, adequate lighting, and slip resistant flooring. Program staff members have completed sampling station inspections in Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Seward, and Dutch Harbor and in the past two years have inspected over 45 vessels and made more than 100 inspection-related visits.These inspections have enabled the program to perform outreach activities, which have increased the amount of cooperation and communication between the fishing industry and the Observer Program.

Motion-compensated scales have been used by industry for years, but the CDQ program was the first to require the scales be available for observer use.  Motion-compensated scales correct for vessel motion by comparing the weight on two separate load cells.  The first load cell weighs the object with an unknown weight (an observerís sample) while the second load cell weighs an object with a known weight.  The two weights are compared at least 60 times per second, which enables the scale to compensate for motion that would otherwise produce an inaccurate weight reading.  Flow scales operate along the same principle, but also monitor belt speed and incorporate that information into the weight calculations as fish flow across the load cell.

In the last few years, the Observer Program has made many improvements to its information systems to ensure the most accurate data is available for CDQ groups to manage their fisheries.  Through the regulatory process there have also been many improvements made to ensure that an observerís sample weights are as accurate as possible.  Certified observer sampling stations and motion-compensated scales have greatly enhanced the ability of observers to collect the best, possible data.
Experience and Training Requirements

Since 1998, NMFS has required that all observers deployed in CDQ fisheries have prior observing experience (Table 3 below), and each must complete a CDQ training course.  The experience requirements ensure that an observer has worked in similar observer conditions and that the Observer Program has evaluated the observerís performance prior to training and deployment in a CDQ fishery.  In some cases, a lead CDQ observer is required on a vessel participating in CDQ fisheries, as noted above.  Lead observers are typically more experienced than regular CDQ observers, and they act as the primary point of contact for vessel personnel.  Lead observers are also responsible for returning to debriefing with all the data from a given cruise.  To qualify as a lead, an observer must have completed at least two cruises (cruises are limited to 90 days) and sampled a defined number of hauls or sets (Table 3 below). 

Table 3.  Observer experience requirements for CDQ fisheries 

CDQ Observer

Experience Requirements

All CDQ observers

At least 60 days of data collection with a minimum rating of 1 or 2 from their most recent debriefing

Successfully complete a CDQ training course

Lead observer factory trawler or mothership

At least 2 cruises and 100 sampled hauls on a factory trawler or mothership

Lead observer trawl catcher vessel

At least 2 cruises and 50 sampled hauls on a trawl catcher vessel

Lead observer non-
trawl catcher vessel

At least 2 cruises and 60 sampled sets on a non-trawl vessel

 Once an observer meets the basic experience requirements they can be enrolled in CDQ observer training.  The CDQ training course is designed to introduce new concepts and build upon existing skills.  Much of the training material consists of regulatory information and instructional information on conflict resolution, random sampling, and time management. Topics such as time management and conflict resolution are taught now to all observers, but they were first taught to CDQ observers because Observer Program staff felt the additional regulatory requirements of CDQ could potentially create a hostile environment on some vessels.  Several CDQ training courses have been held at the Observer Program facility in Seattle, but most observers train at the North Pacific Observer Training Center, University of Alaska Anchorage.  Since 1998, over 150 observers have successfully completed CDQ training and been deployed to CDQ fisheries.

Meeting the vessel- and plant-specific experience prerequisites before entering CDQ training created a need for observer contracting companies to gather work histories for nearly all their observers.  Typically, the companies requested this information directly from the Observer Program.  The Observer Program developed a series of database queries that determine the number of days an observer has spent at processing facilities and the number of days sampled on each vessel type.  For each data request, a report is submitted to the observer contracting company to determine if the observer is qualified for CDQ training, as well as for which vessel type the observer can qualify as ďlead.Ē  To date, information resulting from more than 100 such queries has been provided to observer companies.
Data Transmission and Management

A critical aspect of the Observer Programís role in development of the CDQ program has been  the design and implementation of a data retrieval system by which CDQ groups and vessels can access CDQ catch information.  Because each vessel is accountable for its catch, a real-time tracking system with the most recent data available is imperative.  While vessels are fishing, observers sample the catch and enter data into a computer. Information on how much fish is caught, the species composition of that catch, and which groupís quota each set or haul should accrue against are entered into the Observer Programís at-sea data reporting application, the ATLAS program.

The ATLAS program, developed by Observer Program staff, has several components that allow real-time tracking and data editing. ATLAS is required on all catcher/processors harvesting CDQ, on motherships receiving CDQ, and at shoreside processing plants that receive CDQ deliveries.  Catcher vessels are not required to have the ATLAS program.  Staff have traveled to Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, Seward and other remote locations in Alaska, as well as ports throughout the Seattle area to install ATLAS.  To date, program staff have installed ATLAS on 83 vessels and at 15 shoreside processors.  The software is also used by observers during open-access fisheries.

Observers on catcher/processors and motherships are required to send electronic data to the Observer Program office in Seattle once per day.  Observers transmit data using an automated process by which the vesselís computer modem connects to a computer in Seattle via satellite.  Once the data are received at the Observer Program office they are loaded into a database available to NMFS users.  CDQ groups and vessels are also able to access the data via a web site, developed and maintained by Observer Program staff.  Through the web site, vessels and CDQ groups access their catch information and use it to track CDQ quotas to determine when they must cease fishing.  Each vesselís data are protected by a username and password for security purposes. Data that are available on the web site include raw observer sample data and observer data extrapolated up to the total catch. This state-of-the-art CDQ data retrieval system has received much interest from industry and NMFS.

Data Quality Assurance

The ATLAS program not only allows observers to enter and transmit their data from sea, it also provides them e-mail communication with Observer Program staff.   Eighteen Observer Program staff are assigned from four to nine vessels or shoreside processors for which they act as the inseason advisor.  Observers at sea have the ability to ask questions about data collection protocols, and staff can view data an observer has submitted and send corrections or questions to the observer.  Development of the ATLAS software and implementation of inseason advising has greatly increased the accuracy of data used to manage open access and CDQ fisheries.  In contrast, observers on catcher vessels without ATLAS fill out forms and fax them to the Seattle office at the completion of each fishing trip.  Currently, about 40 catcher vessels are approved to fish CDQ.  Faxed data are entered into the database by program staff in Seattle and made available on the programís web site.

Inseason advisors from the Observer Program monitor each observerís work while they are at sea and debrief observers upon their return.  During debriefing interviews, which typically last from one to five days, each observerís methods are reviewed, data corrections are made, and the finalized data are loaded into the database.  The Observer Program puts considerable effort into each cruise a CDQ observer completes: from ensuring that the observer is qualified and trained, to verifying that the vessel has the necessary communications and sampling equipment available, to debriefing the observer upon return.  The Observer Programís goal is to provide the highest quality data possible in a timely, professional manner.  Close coordination is maintained with the CDQ management group at the NMFS Alaska Region Office regarding issues of data quality, program management, and observer support.


The CDQ program has expanded the boundaries of the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program and its staff in recent years. Staff interactions and commentary with industry, observers, and the Alaska Region Office have increased as a result.  Observer Program staff have consistently met the challenges posed by the fishery with the highest level of accountability of any fishery managed by NMFS.  Development and implementation of advanced training for CDQ observers, the ATLAS program, inseason advising, and the vessel inspection program are examples of how the Observer Program has risen to these challenges.  The new technologies and monitoring systems that were developed by the Observer Program guarantee only the most recent and accurate information possible are used to manage one of the worldís most lucrative fisheries.