The Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) Observer Program is essential to NOAA Fisheries’ successful stewardship of living marine resources and ecosystems along the U.S. Pacific coast. NOAA Fisheries mission to ensure economically and biologically sustainable fisheries is dependent on the monitoring of commercial fisheries’ total catch, including both the portion of the catch retained (landed) and that which is discarded at-sea. Strategies employed to monitor commercial fisheries catch include landing receipts, shoreside monitors/observers , port biologists, at-sea observers, and technology-based devices.
The program is responsible for monitoring catch at-sea and deploys independent biologists (observers) to document the catch aboard fishing vessels. With scientific backgrounds, intensive training and in-field support, observers provide comprehensive, high-quality at-sea data essential to the management of Pacific coast fish stocks.
The NWFSC observer program is one of many observer programs around the country. Deployed across 42 fisheries, U.S. observers log more than 60,000 days at-sea every year. This program, working within the overall mission of the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division, collects, manages and analyzes fishery dependent data for use in management decisions, tracking catch share quotas and annual catch limits, stock assessments and research. The program trains, ensures data quality, and administers observers, who collect fishing-related data including: fishing locations and times, catch composition including discards/bycatch and biological data (see Data Collection section). Observer program staff includes NOAA employees, contractors, and collaborators from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC).
There are two components of the NWFSC observer program that each monitor a distinct group of West Coast vessels: the At-Sea Hake Observer Program monitors the at-sea hake processing vessels and the West Coast Groundfish Observer Program monitors catcher vessels that deliver their catch to a shore-based processor or a mothership.
The West Coast Groundfish Observer Program, or WCGOP, started in 2001. Implemented by NOAA Fisheries, the observer program began with the goal of gathering data necessary to manage shore-based groundfish fisheries off the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts. The first WCGOP observers were deployed in August 2001 in the limited entry fixed gear sablefish endorsed fleet. Coverage of the limited entry bottom trawl fleet began in September 2001. Coverage of additional West Coast fisheries has expanded through the years to include California halibut trawl, nearshore fixed gear, and pink shrimp trawl among others.
The At-Sea Hake Observer Program, or A-SHOP, dates back to the 1970s when observers were deployed onto foreign fishing vessels that were catching Pacific hake. Observer data collection focused primarily on marine mammal and salmon bycatch. By 1991, foreign vessels were no longer allowed to fish in U.S. waters, but observers continue to monitor this sector aboard U.S. flagged catcher processor and mothership vessels. While aboard, they collect total catch and bycatch and protected species interactions data.