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A fisheries observer is an independent specialist who serves on board commercial fishing vessels, or in fish processing plants and other platforms, and is employed by a fisheries observer program, either directly by a government agency or by a third party contractor. Observers spend anywhere from 1 day to 3 months out at sea before returning to be “debriefed”. A debriefing consists of reviewing any unusual occurrences or observations, violations observed, and any safety problems or other hardships they endured during the trip. These data are then integrated into the regional agency’s database used to monitor fish quotas.

Observers are usually the only independent data collection source for some types of at-sea information, such as bycatch, catch composition, and gear configuration data. Independent data collection in this context refers to data that is not potentially biased by the fishermen. Creel surveys, trip reports, and other data obtained directly from fishermen can have some dependent bias associated with it. Fisheries-dependent information is critical for the responsible management and conservation of living marine resources, and many worldwide marine resource management regimes utilize fisheries observers for the collection of this data.

The integrity of a fisheries observer program is a function of the conduct, morale, and performance of its employees. Moreover, the stature and stability of a program has direct bearing on the quality of its data products and on the level of confidence that scientists, managers, and policy makers are able to ascribe to the use of this data.

Fisheries observer program

Hiring Requirements

A fisheries observer program is responsible for providing the training and support necessary for deploying observers on board fishing vessels in order to collect the fisheries-dependent information essential to achieving the management objectives of the programme. Generally, fisheries observers are required to have an educational background in the biological sciences and a proven ability to handle life at sea. Specific programs have additional or less requirements. Also required is an independent attitude, an ability to get along with people in tight quarters and strong personal integrity. "Hang Loose" and "Stand By" are the general mottos for observers because conditions, boats and circumstances often change at the last minute.

Observer training


Fisheries observer programmes vary according to the management objective. The three main objectives are

The International Fisheries Observer and Monitoring Conference develops, promotes and enhances effective fishery monitoring programs to ensure sustainable resource management throughout the world’s oceans. Their mission is to improve fishery monitoring and observing programs worldwide through sharing practices and development of data collection and analysis. Since many observing entities are contracted, this conference allows dialog between agencies and between those that rely upon the data collected by observers. gives a list of observer programs around the world.

NOAA National Observer Program (United States)


The mission of the National Observer Program is to provide a support system for observers ensuring that they are fully supported. The policies must reflect the diverse needs of regional observer programs while enhancing data quality and achieving consistency in key areas of national importance. Observers are fully assisted by the National Observer Program. Most gear is provided to observers for safety and sampling. Travel mileage, hotels, and expenses are paid while traveling to and from docks. Observers are also supported by extremely strict repercussions against any fisherman impeding or endangering them at the docks or while at sea.



Enhancements to Data Quality and Data Collection Procedures
  • To develop and evaluate Agency initiatives
  • To evaluate the procedures for collection of observer data
  • To develop technological and methodological improvements to data collection
  • To enhance the quality of observer data
  • To integrate observer data with other data collection programs
  • To update a national by catch report
Policy Development
  • To identify amendments in legislation to support observer program activities
  • To develop national continuity with regard to hiring, training, safety and health, and data confidentiality
Observer Support
  • To support observers to they are able to collect high quality data
  • To communicate NOP activities to observer community
Program Enhancements
  • To identify and make recommendations on NOAA’s priorities and how observers can help
  • To review regional observer programs and suggest improvements
  • To review cost efficiency and effectiveness of observer program
Outreach and Education
  • To communicate the goals and objective of NOAA at a national level
  • To design and implement outreach activities
  • To formalize working relationships
  • To support and participate in the International Fisheries Observer Conference
  • To maintain awareness of observer programs worldwide

Observer Providers

Name Fisheries Covered
A.I.S., Inc.
  • New England and Mid-Atlantic Gillnet and Trawl
  • Atlantic Scallop Dredge
  • North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut - Partial Coverage
  • Northeast Groundfish
Australian Fisheries Management Authority
  • Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery
  • Heard Island and McDonald Island Fishery
  • Northern Prawn Fishery
  • Macquarie Island Fishery
  • Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery
Alaskan Observers, Inc.
  • At-Sea Hake
  • North Pacific Groundfish
  • West Coast Groundfish
East West Technical Services LLC
  • Atlantic Scallop Dredge
  • Northeast Groundfish
Fathom Research LLC.
  • Atlantic Scallop Dredge
  • Northeast Groundfish
Frank Orth & Associates
  • California/Oregon Driftnet
  • California Longline
IAP World Service
  • Atlantic Longline
  • Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern Atlantic Shrimp Trawl
  • Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish
MRAG Americas Inc.
  • North Pacific Groundfish
Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission
  • West Coast Groundfish
Saltwater Inc.
  • Alaska Crab
  • Alaska Marine Mammal Observer Program (AMMOP)
  • Alaska Scallops
  • At-Sea Hake
  • North Pacific Groundfish
  • West Coast Groundfish
TechSea International
  • At-Sea Hake
  • North Pacific Groundfish
Lynker Technologies
  • Pacific Island Region longline, including Hawaii and America Samoa

Data Usage

Scientific data are the foundation of fisheries management. To manage fisheries, data are needed not only for species targeted by a fishery, but for all species in the ecosystem. Observers are the only source of independent data collection for some types of at-sea information. Bycatch, catch composition, and gear configuration cannot be seen otherwise. This data are used to support the National Marine Fisheries Service in their effort for conservation and management activities. These include: Bycatch Reduction, Stock Assessment, Protected Species, Gear Research, and Fisheries Regulations.

Fisheries inspection programmes, conducted by officials with enforcement powers are not to be considered observer programmes. Though observers may be tasked to register compliance with fisheries regulations, observers do not have enforcement powers and are not to be considered enforcement agents.

In the United States, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration oversees the Domestic Observer program.


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