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July-Sept 2006
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Special Projects: User Information Needs

adult Pacific sandfish
Figure 1.  Catch locations of Spawning female Pacific cod, Observer Visual Maturity Project 2005.

Short-term Projects:
This quarter, we address both the short- and long-term information needs of our data users. For short-term (1-2 years) information needs, we assign observers to complete special data collection projects that include tasks additional to normal observer duties. The process for developing special projects starts in March each year when we solicit requests from interested parties for implementation in the following fishing year. The FMA Division has conducted special projects for AFSC scientists, NMFS Alaska Regional Office fishery managers, staff from various other fisheries agencies, and, on occasion, other interested parties including graduate students.

We set our deadline for special project requests at the end of August, which gives us time to review each project, fine tune it with the requester as necessary, develop training materials, and then provide training for the observers who will be assigned with the project when deployed. We strive to accept and complete all projects requested, but this is dependent on the volume of requests and the demands the projects place on observers who already are tasked with normal catch sampling duties. When we cannot accept all requests, we work through the AFSC Division Directors to set priorities.

To assess the efficacy of special projects, we ask observers to complete a post-deployment questionnaire developed for each project. The questionnaires are designed to assess any impact the project may have had on their normal duties and provide observers the opportunity to offer suggestions and comments. This feedback is reviewed by staff and used to help improve future data collections.

Data collected for special projects address a range of needs. Titles from the 2006 projects are a good illustration: Spiny Dogfish Maturity, Octopi Sex and Weight, At-Sea Offal Discharge, Skate Vertebrae Collection (Aleutian, Bering, and Whitebrow), Pacific Cod Maturity (Fig. 1 above), Salmon Genetics, Atka Mackerel Tag Reporting, Atka Mackerel Spawning, Trawl Gear Measurements, Seabird Attraction to Trawler Discharge Plumes, Monitoring Additional Sources of Seabird Mortality on Trawlers, Hook Spacing, Northern Rock Sole Maturity, Skate Lengths, and Atka Mackerel Testes Collection. We expect these projects to continue to evolve, and we will strive to continue to meet the changing data needs.

Long-term Projects:
The work required to meet the long-term need of data users can be more substantial, particularly when changes impact our data collection and processing systems. Such complex changes generally result from identifying and discussing the long-term needs and agreeing to them well in advance of implementation. We encourage all users to discuss their long-term needs with FMA senior staff. Long-term data collection projects differ from the special short-term projects noted above because they result in significant changes to the standard suite of duties assigned to observers for the foreseeable future.

In considering long-term changes to our data collections, we assess the practicality of collecting the needed information aboard commercial fishing vessels. Based on our assessment, we often make changes to data collections in consultation with the requester. Sometimes we establish a short-term special project to evaluate the feasibility of a potential long-term change. Recommendations for changes are reviewed by FMA managers before implementation.

Our preparatory work for each fishing year incorporates feedback received from observers, staff, and data users on the various aspects of our data collections. During the data quality control processes, FMA staff compile notes on misconceptions and data errors encountered. When particular problems are documented for multiple observers we evaluate our training materials and make appropriate improvements.

Changing data collection procedures and incorporating feedback requires close coordination among staff and the contractors who prepare observers for deployment. A substantial amount of the training is conducted by the North Pacific Fisheries Observer Training Center (OTC) at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Twice a year, OTC and FMA training staff meet to plan and prepare observer training materials. These coordination meetings allow observer trainers to review common errors, new sampling policies, and the newest version of the observer sampling manual. During the meetings, the trainers develop lesson plans and training materials. Because the fishing year begins in January, new training materials must be completed by late November so that they are available for presentation to the first wave of observers who train in December.

In summary, the FMA Division has processes for addressing both long- and short-term data needs of our data users. Early identification of such needs helps us plan for incorporating new collections into our data systems and determine new protocols for training observers for the coming fishing year.

By Allison Barns, Jennifer Ferdinand, Martin Loefflad, and Brian Mason

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