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Catch monitoring by fisheries observers in the United States and Canada

William A. Karp1 and Howard McElderry2

1 Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sand Point Way Northeast, Seattle, WA 98115, USA.
Email: [email protected]
2 Archipelago Marine Research Limited, #200 - 525 Head Street, Victoria, BC V9A 5S1, Canada.
Email: [email protected]

Abstract: Catches may be monitored by observers to provide data for estimating removals of target and non-target species, for stock assessment and biological research, and for evaluating compliance with fisheries regulations. While a number of methods are available for monitoring vessel activity and accounting for catch, independent, verifiable information on catch, bycatch, and discard can be provided only by at-sea observers. Thus, observer programmes are essential components of integrated fishery monitoring systems. Programmes can be successful only if their objectives are realistic, the resources they are provided with are adequate, their organisational structure allows for collection of independent, verifiable information, and the observers themselves receive the necessary training and support. Furthermore, fishing industry personnel, observer providers, and agency staff must work together to ensure effective programme operations. In this review, we examine various aspects of catch monitoring by observers with reference to issues identified during a Canada/U.S. observer programme workshop, held in 1998, and lessons learned from the operation of two large observer programme: the North Pacific Groundfish Observer Programme, which monitors groundfish fisheries off Alaska, and the British Columbia Trawl Fishery Observer Programme. We identify the factors which must be taken into account during the design, implementation, and operation of observer programmes and offer recommendations for policy makers and managers involved in operating existing programmes or developing new ones.




3.1 North-eastern United States

3.2 South-eastern United States

3.3 Western United States (including Hawaii)

3.4 Alaska


4.1 The fisheries and their management

4.2 Monitoring: The North Pacific Groundfish Observer Programme (NPGOP)



6.1 Atlantic region of Canada

6.2 North Atlantic Fishery Organisation (NAFO)

6.3 Pacific region of British Columbia


7.1 Factors influencing the accuracy of data collected by observers

7.2 Objectives and expectations

7.2.1 Enforcement objectives

7.2.2 Industry objectives

7.3 Programme structure

7.3.1 Service delivery

7.3.2 Programme responsibilities

  1. Fair compensation. Observers should be remunerated at a level which is consistent with the challenges they face collecting the data, and the importance of their observations to the conservation and management of the stocks. They are often deployed at very short notice and may be required to complete lengthy assignments. Isolation, long work hours and the sometimes unfriendly work environment add to the stresses they must endure. There is no standard approach to establishing observer salary, but problems may arise when observer pay levels are markedly lower than those provided to government employees who conduct similar work, or vessel crew;
  2. Resources. Observers appreciate having the right tools for their work and performance improves when they have the resources appropriate for carrying out their work. Instruction manuals that clearly explain the work requirements; data sheets that are well designed; reference materials that are up to date and informative; and sampling equipment that is in good repair and appropriate to the work requirement are all important. Adequate working space and access to the catch should also be of concern; this requirement may be addressed through regulation or industry outreach;
  3. Monitoring observer concerns and work attitude. Because observer programmes are generally de-centralised, communications can be difficult. However, interaction with observers in the field is critical to the success of any programme, and steps should be taken to provide the resources necessary to meet this requirement. In some situations, electronic communication systems allow programmes to monitor observer performance on an ongoing basis, otherwise, monitoring of observer performance in the field can be accomplished through use of field personnel, telephone interviews, and other means. Debriefing is an important function of most observer programmes which provides a mechanism for identifying and resolving data collection problems and making any necessary corrections;
  4. Involvement in programme design and evaluation. Observer programme staff may not always interact with the groups involved with programme design or data use on a regular basis. It is very beneficial for programme staff, including observers, to understand the intended uses of observer data and to be involved with development of sampling protocols. In gaining a broader understanding of how the data are used, observers gain a greater appreciation for the value of their work. Likewise, users of observer data who regularly interact with observers and programme staff gain a broader understanding of the fishery and the limitations of the data. Furthermore, observer work often improves when observers understand the uses to which their data will be put. This information can be provided during training if trainers are familiar with the scientists, managers, and enforcement officials who depend on their data;
  5. Observer Support. While programme managers have little direct control of the work setting, observers depend upon their employers to respond when serious issues arise. In pursuing their work responsibilities, observers may experience various forms of harassment including sampling interference, sexual harassment, verbal or psychological abuse, or assault. Programme managers must provide observers and industry personnel with a clear and unambiguous policy on observer interference and harassment and have the authority, resources, and determination to take all necessary actions when such problems arise. Observer mistreatment is less likely to occur when guidelines are clear and the response to incidents is timely and appropriate, and
  6. Safety. Observer programmes must provide an environment that ensures the highest standards of safety for observers. Observer safety is an important but complex issue as vessel safety relates to both compliance with safety regulations and the manner in which the vessel is operated. Programmes need to empower observers to make the final assessment on safety and support their decisions. Programme managers must also ensure that observers are supplied with the necessary safety equipment for their work assignment and that they are trained in safety procedures. Fishing industry participants share the responsibility for providing a safe working environment for observers.

7.3.3 Agency responsibilities

7.3.4 Fishing industry responsibilities

7.4 Working conditions

  1. Fishing methods. The fishing method used will strongly influence the observer's ability to estimate catch. Gears such as long-lines and traps bring fish aboard incrementally and, though catch may be easy to identify and count, gear retrieval may occur over long time periods. In these instances, observers usually select random time intervals during which to enumerate catch. In contrast, trawls and seines bring (often large) catches aboard instantaneously causing sampling difficulties which may be considerable. In these instances observers may find it difficult to take random samples of adequate size from the catch;
  2. Catch size and composition. The quality of catch estimates obtained by observers is influenced by the quantity and diversity of species in the catch. In many fisheries, catches may be large enough to create sampling problems for observers. Even when species diversity is low, thorough determination of catch composition may be difficult, especially in pelagic trawl fisheries were catches can be high (> 100 t) and the incidence of important bycatch species low (<< 1%);
  3. Catch handling methods. Fishing vessels vary in the layout and amount of deck or factory space for catch handling and this influences the way that catch is transferred aboard, sorted and processed. Observer sampling opportunities and methods are governed by access to monitoring control points and the amount of time and space available for sample collection and processing. There may be no single control point from which to enumerate all aspects of the catch in a similar fashion. For example, primary culling of discarded catch may occur on the trawl deck and final sorting on conveyers. In addition, when catch is brought on board, observers must work around a number of activities. Crew members may be busy stowing or preparing gear for re-setting, culling and removing unwanted catch, and processing or storing fish in holds. Observers must overcome these challenges when deciding how and where to allocate their sampling efforts, and they may need to employ suboptimal sampling methods when their needs conflict with others on the vessel, or when safety concerns arise;
  4. Crew co-operation. Crew co-operation is essential to the success of most observer sampling activities. This subject is discussed at greater length in the preceding section on industry responsibilities, and
  5. Weather. Weather encountered during the trip may force the vessel to modify their original fishing plan, or minimise work activities. In these circumstances, ambitious sampling designs may be reduced to visual estimates made from the safety of cover.

7.5 Sampling methods

7.6 Observer qualities

  1. Experience. Experience develops with time spent at sea in a diverse range of sampling situations. Through this process, individuals learn to meet programme sampling objectives in a practical manner, and co-ordinate their activities with those of vessel personnel. Experience (and maturity) also allows observers to enhance their abilities to approach sensitive issues in a respectful manner;
  2. Knowledge. Core training for observers covers all aspects of the fishery, management and regulations, vessel operations, fishery biology, and observer duties. Other knowledge, gained through practical work experience aboard fishing vessels, includes working and living aboard fishing vessels, and fishery issues from the perspective of the fishers. Once they have received basic training, many programmes require their observers to attend periodic briefings to refresh and update their skills. The degree of experience and training required of observers will depend, largely, on the specific data collection responsibilities of the programme. Training should be reviewed frequently to ensure that observers are properly prepared, and new objectives should only be incorporated in a programme when it is clear that training and observer skill levels are appropriate;
  3. Integrity. In their role as data collectors, observers collect and document confidential information on fishing activities that may be critical to the business operations of the companies involved. In programmes that address management needs, observer-provided information directly affects fishing or economic opportunities for the fishing vessels and their crews. It is critical that observers report information honestly and be respectful of the importance and confidentiality of the data they collect, and
  4. Motivation. Since they cannot supervise observers directly, programme managers rely on the initiative of their observers to complete the work requirements properly. Observer motivation and commitment to the job is essential when observers are faced with such challenges as poor weather, uncomfortable working conditions, repetitious sampling duties, and potentially hostile treatment.

7.7 Coverage levels and estimation uncertainty

Figure 1. Percent error (defined as) as a function of observer (vessel) coverage associated with estimates of catch and bycatch species in the autumn 1996 trawl fishery for walleye pollock in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands region (from Dorn et al. 1997 b).

Figure 2. Coefficients of variation (CV) associated with chinook salmon bycatch estimates in the 1994 Bering Sea/Aleutian Island trawl fishery for walleye pollock. The upper figure illustrates the relationship between CV and the fraction of vessels and fraction of hauls samples. The lower figure illustrates vessel-specific CVs as a function of the fraction of hauls sampled for eight different vessels (from Vølstad et al. 1997).

Figure 3. Coefficients of variation associated with vessel-specific salmon bycatch rate estimates as a function of the within- and between haul sample fractions for the 1995 Bering Sea/Aleutian trawl fishery for walleye pollock. These results were obtained from a simulation based on the assumption of a Poisson random distribution of salmon are distributed within the pollock catches (from Turnock and Karp, 1997).


  1. Observer programmes provide the only means for collecting certain types of data required for determining the status of our living marine resources and determining the consequences of commercial fishery operations. Furthermore, they are an essential component of an integrated fisheries monitoring system;
  2. Since they are generally expensive and complex, great care should be taken when designing observer programmes to ensure that the goals and objectives are clear and unambiguous, and that they are achievable. Managers and scientists who depend on observer data must recognise the uncertainties involved, and place demands on programmes, which are consistent with these uncertainties. They must also recognise the consequences of placing conflicting demands on their observer programmes;
  3. To properly serve the needs of industry and government clients, the integrity of observer programmes should be carefully protected. This can be accomplished by ensuring that the service delivery model is free from conflict of interest, which is the case when observers are employed directly by government agencies or by contractors who are accountable directly to government agencies;
  4. Industry participation in the setting of programme goals and priorities should be encouraged, but should be protected from political influences which might result in placing unrealistic expectations on a programme. While industry co-operation is essential to successful programme operations, industry cannot be permitted to influence placement decisions made by programme managers. The benefits that industry obtains from observer programmes are greater when the public perceives that these programme are not subject to inappropriate industry influences;
  5. The conditions under which observers work are often harsh, and sampling requirements which are easy to achieve in a research environment may be impossible to achieve on a commercial vessel. While demands placed on observers must be realistic, the observers themselves must be provided with the tools necessary to carry out their duties. These include training and the provision of suitable sampling equipment, agency and contractor support, and maintenance of a safe, positive and productive working environment at sea;
  6. Observer experience and professionalism are essential to the success of any programme and steps should be taken to ensure that employment terms, working conditions, and all other aspects of programme design and implementation meet standards which will encourage individuals who perform well to observe on a continuing basis;
  7. The service delivery model employed by a programme may directly impact its ability to delivery high-quality, independent data. While certain programme functions should be retained by government agencies, provision of observer services by private companies who contract directly with government agencies is generally successful and cost effective. When fishing companies are permitted to negotiate directly with service providers, conflicts of interest may arise, and data integrity may be compromised. This concern is exacerbated when observers perform compliance monitoring duties;
  8. Agencies must retain sufficient expertise to allow them to transfer observer programmes to new contractors without interruption of service;
  9. When sampling interference or observer harassment occur, agencies are obliged to provide enforcement resources to back up observers and ensure that the consequences of this type behaviour are appropriate;
  10. Random placement of observers on vessels is generally difficult to achieve and when compliance concerns are involved it may not be reasonable to assume that the catch characteristics of observed and unobserved vessels are similar, and
  11. Even though it may be possible to select the hauls or sets to be sampled in a random fashion, requirements for random subsampling within a haul or set may also be difficult to meet.


CGSB, 1997. Training and Certification of At-Sea Fisheries Observers. National Standard of Canada CAN/CGSB-190.1-97. Canadian General Standards Board, Ottawa, K1A 1G6, Canada.

DORN, M., GAICHAS, S., FITZGERALD, S. & BIBB, S. 1997a. Evaluation of haul weight estimation procedures used by at-sea observers in pollock fisheries off Alaska. National Marine Fisheries Service, AFSC Processed Rep. 97-07: 76p. Alaska Fisheries Science Centre, National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle WA 98115-0070, USA.

DORN, M., IANELLA, J. & GAICHAS, S. 1997b. Uncertainty in estimates of total catch for target and bycatch species at varying observer coverage levels in the Alaska groundfish fisheries. Unpublished manuscript.

FRENCH, R., NELSON, JR., R. & WALL, J. 1982. Role of the United States observer programme in management of foreign fisheries in the Northeast Pacific Ocean and the Eastern Bering Sea. North Am. Jo. Fish. Manag., 2:122-131.

PENNOYER, S. 1997. Bycatch management in Alaska groundfish fisheries. Am. Fish. Soc. Symp., 20 : 1414-1450.

TURNOCK, J, & KARP, W.A. 1997. Estimation of salmon bycatch in the 1995 pollock fishery in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands. Unpublished manuscript prepared for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

VØLSTAD, J.H., RICHKUS, W., GAURIN, S. and EASTON, R. 1997. Analytical and statistical review of procedures for collection and analysis of commercial fishery data used for management and assessment of groundfish stocks in the U.S. exclusive economic zone off Alaska. Project report prepared by Versar, Inc. for the National Marine Fisheries Service, (Available from William A. Karp, National Marine Fisheries Service, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, USA).

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