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FMA Works with Industry to Ensure Quality Data Collection

Jason Stern
Figure 1.  FMA staff member Jason Stern inspects the location of the observer's work table.

The Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division (FMA) deploys over 400 individual observers each year to vessels and processing facilities operating in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. Observers collect data that are used for quota monitoring, stock assessments, ecosystem investigations, and various research investigations.

Observer work is often dependent on cooperation from the fishing industry to ensure that our information collection requirements are met. In this report we highlight the collaborative work between FMA staff and industry to enable observers to collect and transmit quality information to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

- Field office support:

FMA maintains field offices in Dutch Harbor and Kodiak, Alaska. Each field office is run by one fishery biologist; additional staff are added during busy fishing seasons with the high volume of vessels and observers working out of Dutch Harbor. FMA field office staff serve as primary NMFS contacts for observed vessels and processing facilities in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, facilitate the collection of high quality data by observers, and act as liaisons between members of the industry and observers.

Work in the FMA field offices is a hands-on job requiring patience and flexibility. Fishing vessels arrive in Kodiak and Dutch Harbor at all hours of the day, and the ability of FMA staff to work a variable schedule is essential. During the peak seasons, work schedules are staggered to ensure that staff are in the office 7 days a week. FMA staff in Seattle and Anchorage also supplement the Dutch Harbor field office for a month or more on a rotating basis. Visiting staff in the Dutch Harbor field office have a variety of duties.

A top priority for field office staff is to conduct midcruise debriefing meetings with observers. These debriefings allow an observer to meet with a staff member during their deployment to review data collection methodology. Midcruise debriefings are vital to ensure that new observers collect data according to protocol and that vessel safety requirements are met.

During these debriefings, FMA staff review the observer's data, discuss the observer's sampling design, ensure that other data types are collected correctly, and answer any questions regarding safety or sampling.

In some instances the vessel, observer, observer provider, or FMA staff may request a meeting prior to the first fishing trip. These meetings, coordinated by field office staff with the observer and key vessel personnel, help to establish a professional working relationship between the observer and vessel personnel.

The objectives are to clarify what is expected of both the observer and vessel personnel and to provide both parties a chance to discuss any specific issues unique to the vessel. At the meeting, everyone is introduced and each participant gives a brief background of their work experience in fisheries.

Each party is given a "Participants Responsibilities" document describing the vessel personnel responsibilities, the observer's responsibilities, and NMFS' responsibilities. Each section is reviewed and discussed by all participants to ensure that all participantís have a mutual understanding of each otherís responsibilities. Details of the meeting are documented and kept on file.

Work in the dynamic production environment of a fishing vessel or processing plant can produce tension among the people involved. Occasionally, conflicts arise between industry personnel and observers or between two observers working together. When conflicts arise, FMA staff may intervene to help create a positive work environment, get the involved parties back to work, and to develop a proactive solution to the original problem.

- At-sea data entry software support:

FMA receives approximately 85% of observer data via satellite through a custom at-sea data entry software, in use since 1997. All groundfish vessels over 125 feet or those participating in specific fisheries are required to have this software and to maintain the communication system needed for the observer to transmit data and messages to FMA staff.

In 2008 FMA launched a new version of the software. Further improvements were made in 2009 which allow observers to send data daily over any type of satellite communication system. Industry assists by providing the computer and communications equipment.

In December 2008 and January 2009, FMA staff traveled to Dutch Harbor to install the new software on more than 125 vessels and 25 plants and provide technical support to industry prior to the start of the groundfish fishing seasons. FMA field office staff provide continuing technical support to industry and observers throughout the year.

FMA staff monitor the data transmissions from all vessels and plants with the at-sea software to ensure that observers are transmitting data frequently to meet inseason fisheries management needs. If a problem arises and an observer is unable to transmit data, FMA works directly with the observer, vessel personnel, and observer contractors to resolve the problem. Typically, this can be done over the phone. If the problem can't be resolved remotely, FMA field office staff visit the boat to resolve the problem.

- Sample station inspections:

  Ben Riedesel
Figure 2.  FMA staff member Ben Riedesel takes notes during a vessel sample station inspection.

Federal regulations require that some vessels participating in limited access fisheries install sample stations that meet specific requirements and are for the sole use of fisheries observers. FMA staff support industryís efforts to meet these requirements by conducting annual vessel sample station inspections. (Figs. 1-2).

FMA staff consult with fishing company representatives to ensure that the sample stations designed and installed aboard vessels comply with the regulations. When the vessels are in port, FMA staff inspect and certify the observer sample stations. All necessary elements of the sample station are documented on a checklist. A copy of this checklist is provided to the vessel company along with a notice of certification for the sample station. If the sample station fails any part of the inspection, FMA staff provide the vessel company with information on what needs revision, and the inspection is rescheduled to ensure that the revisions have been completed.

Each year as many as 59 vessels of varying sizes and gear types are inspected. Inspections are conducted throughout the Puget Sound region of Washington and at the Alaskan ports of Dutch Harbor and Kodiak. The bulk of the inspections occur prior to the start of major fisheries in Alaska. FMA staff are available for sample station consultations and inspections throughout the year and respond to requests within 10 days of receipt.

FMA's support activities provide needed services for members of the fishing industry and help to ensure that observers are able to collect high quality data and transmit these data in a timely manner. These activities are also valuable opportunities for personal interaction with industry, which improves our knowledge of fishing industry operations and helps to foster a good working relationship among members of industry, observers, and FMA staff.

By Allison Barns, Marlon Concepcion, Neil Riley, and Jason Stern


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