Bycatch from commercial fishing vessels is a major fisheries issue. But did you ever wonder how bycatch is estimated and accounted for? This week, we sat down with Mitchell Masser, a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) certified North Pacific groundfish observer, to get a feel for the importance of the work of marine fisheries observers.
Q: Firstly, what does an observer actually do? How does the NMFS use the data you collect?
A: Observers collect data for the National Marine Fisheries Service (a branch under NOAA) off of commercial fishing vessels that target species such as Pollock, Pacific Cod, Sablefish, flatfishes and rockfishes in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. The actual data collected by an observer varies depending on the vessel they are assigned to, the gear that vessel uses and the target species. In general, though, observers use random sampling methods to collect the following data from a vessel’s catch: species composition data, average weights of species, sex/length data from target species, otoliths and fishing effort. Our data is emailed to NOAA’s Seattle office daily and is used in many ways such as estimating bycatch, monitoring quotas, and documenting sightings of endangered species, just to name a few.
Q: Describe an observer’s day-to-day activities
A: Observers work on 3-month-long deployments. In that time period, they may be assigned to multiple vessels. In my past deployment I was first assigned to a 373′ floating Pollock processing plant, with a crew of 222 people. My main task on that plant was to account for ALL salmon delivered as bycatch and to collect sex/length/weight data from a proportion of those salmon.
I was then assigned to a 104′ Sablefish longliner (crew size 7) and didn’t touch land for 47 days. That ship fished near the western part of the Aleutian Islands. I saw one other ship (on the horizon) during that time. I would wake up at 3 pm, sampling their catch and collecting data until 3 am, eat dinner, transmit my data to Seattle, and go to bed at 11 am. No those aren’t typos. 20 hour workdays happen.
Q: What are some of your favorite and lest favorite aspects of being an observer
A. It pays very well, I like the physical and outdoor aspects of the job, and I get to see many interesting marine species. Plus I’ll have some crazy stories for my grandkids. Probably my least favorite part about the job is that there is no communication with the outside world (no email, internet, phone service, ect…). There were a few other challenges, like the limited food options, and how everything moves on a ship. The 30 foot waves made work tough.
Q: Marine observer jobs are often a great stepping stone to a successful fisheries career. Any advice for students looking to land an observer job?
A: . If you can be a successful observer, you are well prepared for the chaos that fisheries field science is. Many people start as observers and then go on to work as biologists for NMFS and NOAA. Also, observing is a foolproof way to pay off student loans quickly. You also learn to work with many different people, different species and in ever-changing scenarios – valuable experience for a young scientist.
As for advice, firstly I would say to be familiar with different types of random sampling methods and be able to explain them in your phone interview. It’s also a good idea to apply in the fall because most companies hire for January and June trainings. Of course, you’d better be ready for an adventure and to do without most daily comforts.
As I post this, Mitch is en route to his next observing assignment in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.