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The Role of Observer Provider Companies in the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program

North Pacific groundfish observer
A North Pacific groundfish observer waits for his ship to come in.

Observer Provider companies provide critical operational support to the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (NPGOP). Provider companies recruit observers, provide all their logistical support during training and deployments in the field, and return them after deployment for final debriefing with staff from the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis (FMA) Division. Observer Providers are responsible for salary, insurance, lodging, transportation, and per diem throughout the observerís employment.

Most observers work for Observer Providers under short-term contracts which last up to 180 days. To ensure safety, Observer Providers are on call 24 hours a day to handle emergencies when their observers are in the field. They provide the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) with logistical information on each observer deployment. Observer Providers ensure that observers attend appropriate NMFS training classes and travel throughout Alaska to meet industry needs for observer coverage. Additionally, Observer Providers arrange for observers to meet NMFS requirements for submitting data and data quality.

To recruit observers, Observer Providers advertise in a range of venues and then screen applicants to ensure that they meet qualifications established by NMFS, as well as any requirements the Observer Providers may have themselves. (Details of NMFS minimum qualifications are available on the AFSC website at: Once hired, individuals are enrolled in NMFS-provided training courses. Successful completion of the training course leads to certification as a North Pacific Groundfish observer, qualified to observe on fishing vessels and at shore-side processing plants in Alaska.

Certified observers are deployed by their respective Observer Providers to ports throughout Alaska. Fishing in Alaska is a dynamic activity and the Observer Provider companies face many logistical challenges in meeting the observer coverage needs of the fishing industry. The busiest ports for observers and Observer Providers are Alaskaís busiest fishing ports, Dutch Harbor and Kodiak. Observer Providers must ensure that their observers arrive to vessel or plant assignments on time and that they meet regulatory requirements designed to keep data quality high.

  North Pacific groundfish observers
North Pacific groundfish observers rest in the Dutch Harbor airport before their flight to the mainland.

Observer Providers must contend with unpredictable events such as weather delays or scramble to deploy an observer at the last minute due to a late request for coverage. Additionally, Observer Providers must be certain that they can provide an alternate observer in the event that illness or injury prevents the assigned observer from fulfilling his or her duties. Each Observer Provider works with industry members with whom they have contracted to provide observer services, and the industry pays for the costs of providing the observer.

Observer Providers ensure that deployed observers submit data to NMFS according to established timelines, often daily, and complete quality control data reviews in NPGOP field offices in Dutch Harbor or Kodiak. At the end of each observerís deployment, Observer Providers ensure that observers complete debriefing interviews and submit their data as part of the data quality control process, and return sampling and safety gear.

Five Observer Providers currently supply observers to NMFS: Alaskan Observers, Inc.; MRAG Americas, Inc.; NWO, Inc.; Saltwater, Inc.; and TechSea International Inc. (Contact information is available on the AFSC website at: Each company has extensive experience with observer programs in the North Pacific and elsewhere in the United States, and, for some, other regions of the world. These are competitive businesses, and this competition is important in keeping costs to the fishing industry for observer coverage relatively low. In 1991 ten companies were operating, while only three of the original companies operate as Providers in Alaska today.

Observer Program regulation and policy requirements are increasingly complex. To assist Observer Providers in understanding and meeting requirements, an FMA staff member serves as a liaison with the Provider companies. The liaison answers Providerís questions, listens to complaints and frustrations, and works to find effective solutions to problems. The liaison role has helped build a close relationship between NMFS and Observer Providers and is an integral and essential part of the successful operation of the Observer Program.

Persons or companies wishing to become Observer Providers in the NPGOP must obtain a permit from NMFS. Instructions for applying for a permit and the requirements and responsibilities of an Observer Provider are found in the Code of Federal Regulations at 50 CFR ß679.50 Subpart E. Applications are evaluated by a NMFS review board appointed by the NMFS Alaska Regional Administrator. Once an application is approved and issued, it cannot be transferred and will not expire as long as the Observer Provider remains active in supplying observers in Alaska. Once issued a permit, the Observer Provider is authorized to provide observer services to the fishing industry, and the Observer Provider becomes accountable to NMFS via regulations.

Future Challenges

In 2008, new regulations implementing a change to the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Fishery Management Plan will increase demands on the workload of Observer Providers. This change, Amendment 80, allocates several groundfish species among trawl fishery sectors and facilitates the formation of harvesting cooperatives. Amendment 80 will require bottom trawl catcher-processors to carry two observers instead of one, increasing the number of observers deployed at any given time.

The full impact of this change will only be understood as the year progresses. Due to the increased number of observer days at sea, the work of Observer Providers and FMA staff will increase. Our past cooperative efforts provide a solid basis for the Observer Providers and the FMA to work together to ensure the continued collection of high quality data for the management of the North Pacific groundfish fisheries.

By Allison Barns, Martin Loefflad, and Bob Maier

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