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NOAA Fisheries Observer Program To Go Under Review

Fishing is among the most hazardous jobs in the world, and when a NOAA Fisheries Observer goes aboard a fishing vessel, he or she is exposed to many of the same dangers that fishers face. There have been times when an observer has died during the course of their work, as when NOAA observer Chris Langel of Wisconsin went missing along with all three crewmembers as F/V LADY CECELIA sank off the Washington Coast in March of 2012.

Observers are generally NOAA-trained field biologists who independently contract their services through agencies. Vessel operators in various types of fisheries (for example, vessels participating in the Shore-based Individual Fishing Quota - IFQ - Program) are required by law to arrange with one of these agencies to have an observer on board. There is no fee attached to this, but the vessel operator must provide berth and meals for the observer. The observer's job includes collecting data on what is caught (target species and bycatch, including bycatch of protected sea life); what is discarded; biologic information on catch; what fishing gear, equipment, and methods are used; and on the fishing grounds themselves. The observers' role is as data collectors with an eye toward sustainable practices, and although they are instructed to report observed violations, they are not to act as law enforcement.

Before an observer is allowed on board, a vessel must have a current dockside safety inspection decal or the equivalent issued by the Coast Guard. No proof of safety compliance means no observer allowed on board, and no observer means no fishing. Keeping a fishing vessel shipshape with a well trained crew saves lives and livelihoods whether there's an observer on board or not - a good operator/employer would do that anyway. However, concern over sequestration potentially affecting how many Coast Guard officers are on hand to conduct the necessary dockside safety inspections, as well as how many NOAA observers there are in the budget raises the separate matter of not being able to fish even when the fisher has done everything mandated. This is the backdrop for many who make their living at sea.

Most of the time, no major problems between crew and observer are reported. Most of the time, the vessels are safely run without reported casualties. Still, crew-observer conflicts can and do occur. There have been reports that some observers are unprepared and even impede the daily work of the crew. There have been reports of attacks on observers. Due to such reports, NOAA has decided to compile information on reported conflicts and attacks on observers and to review how U.S. fishing vessels are observed. They expect to complete their report in October of 2013 and make recommendations or changes subsequent to that, as the learning process continues.

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