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Twenty Year Anniversary of the Domestic Groundfish Observer Program

see caption  
A fisheries observer measures Pacific cod onboard a catcher trawler.

TWENTY YEARS AGO Amendment 13 to the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands (BSAI) Groundfish Fisheries Management Plan (FMP) and Amendment 18 to the Gulf of Alaska (GOA) Groundfish FMP implemented the domestic North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program (Observer Program) for Alaska groundfish fisheries. Upon publication of the final rule governing the Observer Program in 1989, tremendous effort, cooperation, and dedication were required of staff at the AFSC and NMFS Alaska Regional Office, observer providers, observers, and industry to ensure that in less than a 6-month turnaround time, all was in place for the Observer Program to move forward with domestic observers deployed to vessels in January 1990. Since that time, the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program has made many accomplishments and advances, serving as an example both nationally and internationally for successful fisheries management.

The success of the Observer Program and importance to its many constituents culminated in the establishment in 2005 of the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division (FMA) with the Observer Program at its core (July-September 2005 issue of the AFSC Quarterly Report). This change improved the Program’s ability to provide high quality data to end users through training and deploying observers into the field, monitoring data collected while observers are still deployed, and finalizing the data during the debriefing process.

A proud accomplishment of the Program is its safety record. Each year the Program deploys approximately 400 observers who spend roughly 36,000 days at sea collecting data. Most people complete their work and return without incident. However, two tragic observer fatalities, one in 1990 and another in 2007, furthered awareness of the inherent dangers faced by observers at sea and the commitment to safety as the most important issue for the Observer Program.

Extensive advancements have been made in the area of data transmission over the past 20 years. In 1990, raw data were written on plastic deck sheets and later transferred to paper forms. The catch and fishing effort data were summarized into a weekly catch report which was submitted via fax machine, telephone, telex, or as a coded radio message. Observers reported the area(s) where the vessel fished and a summary of the week’s catch by species or species group. In 1997, the Program launched a custom at-sea software application for data transmission to Seattle. Now, observers record raw data on deck forms printed on write-in-the-rain paper. The deck forms are retained to preserve the raw data. Currently, approximately 80% of our data are submitted electronically, and these data are entered directly from the deck forms to FMA’s custom at-sea software for transmission to Seattle. The custom software also allows staff to review data as they are submitted and to communicate directly with observers at sea via text messages allowing staff to quickly address any questions regarding the data. Approximately 20% of data are not submitted electronically but are transcribed from the deck forms to paper forms and submitted via fax. These data are collected on smaller vessels that do not have capacity to install the additional equipment needed to support the at-sea software.

When the Observer Program first began, all data were verified and corrected manually during debriefing interviews with the observer to ensure data quality. The verified data were then submitted to keypunchers for entry to our final database where additional automated error checks were performed. Today, numerous error checks are run on the data even while the observer is still at sea. FMA staff can communicate with observers and clear up any potential problems quickly. It used to take about a year to finalize data from the previous calendar year and now, thanks to advances in technology, the previous year’s data are finalized by the end of March.

While many aspects of the Observer Program have changed since its inception and with significant restructuring planned for the future, much about the Program remains the same. The fundamentals of commercial fishing and collecting data onboard fishing vessels remain largely unchanged. Observers still collect samples using standard blue baskets wearing the standard raingear and neoprene boots; and the experience gained while working as an observer has launched the career of many aspiring fisheries biologists. Although sampling protocols have been refined, the Program maintains a database with more than 30 years of data from the Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska. Personnel have come and gone, but eight of the staff members onboard in 1990 remain with FMA, while many former Program staff now work in other divisions at the AFSC or elsewhere for NOAA.

The structure of the domestic Observer Program originally was modeled after the Supplemental Observer Program created in 1985 for the Foreign Fisheries Observer Program. This model was based on a method for foreign governments to pay for observers placed on their ships without paying fees directly to the U.S. Government. The borrowed structure for the domestic Observer Program was intended as an interim solution but in fact has persisted for 20 years. As such the Program has faced a number of longstanding concerns that result primarily from its underlying structure. Planning for restructuring the Observer Program has been underway for several years. Implementation of the restructuring is a large and complex undertaking, and the projected timeline is dependent on several steps, many of which are associated with the normal North Pacific Fishery Management Council and rulemaking process. Council final action is tentatively scheduled for October 2010, with the associated rulemaking developed through 2011. Development for a contract of this projected scope is expected to take about 2 years to complete, with the potential implementation of a newly restructured Observer Program in 2013. (Further information on restructuring is reported in the July-September 2009 issue of the AFSC Quarterly Report. )

Looking back, it is remarkable to see how much the Observer Program has developed in the past 20 years. We look forward to what the next 20 years will bring.

By Allison Barns and Russ Nelson


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