Observer programs are an integral part of the sustainable utilization and management of many marine resources. As a result MRAG has engaged in recruiting biologists and placing them in data collection jobs with the fishing industry. MRAG Americas presently operates in four observer programs. We been certified contractors for the NE At Sea Monitoring (ASM) Program since 2010 and were awarded the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program (NEFOP) contract in 2012. MRAG Americas has been a certified contractor for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Shellfish Observer Program since 2005. We also provide observers to the international Inter-America Tropical Tuna Convention (IATTC) Transshipment Observer Program, placing observers on foreign flagged Freezer Carrier ships in the Pacific Ocean.
The information collected by observers is used to monitor amount and disposition of catch and bycatch, understand status and trends of fish stocks and protected species, understand interactions with protected species, determine the benefits derived from fishing activities, and predict impacts of existing and proposed management actions. Data collected by observers are required under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Regulatory Flexibility Act (RFA), Executive Order 12866 (EO 12866), and other applicable law. The program is used to support the conservation and management of living marine resources in US waters.
The fisheries of the Northeast Region, managed by the New England and Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Councils, represent a wide variety of target species, fishing operations, and public interests. These fisheries are subject to observer coverage to collect data on fishing activities and bycatch interactions. The Northeast Fishery Observer Program (NEFOP) collects, maintains, and distributes data on fisheries in the northwest Atlantic Ocean for scientific and management purposes. Fisheries observers are trained by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) in Tech Park, MA; however, observers are recruited and deployed through independent third-party provider. The NEFSC Fisheries Sampling Branch maintains responsibility for overseeing observer training, determining sampling frequency, managing data, and providing data summaries to support quantitative evaluations of various management measures. NMFS awards a multi-year contract to a single provider to hire and operate the daily aspects of the observer program. MRAG Americas was awarded the full five year contract in late 2012, and extend through March of 2018.
- Observers have a number of responsibilities, including to:
- Conduct a pre-trip safety inspection;
- Communicate observer duties and data collection needs with vessel crew;
- Collect economic information, such as trip costs (i.e. price of fuel, ice, etc…);
- Collect fishing gear information (i.e. size of nets and dredges, mesh sizes, and gear configurations);
- Collect tow-by-tow information (i.e. depth, water temperature, wave height, and location and time when fishing begins and ends);
- Record all kept and discarded catch (fish, sharks, crustaceans, invertebrates, and debris) on observed hauls (species, weight, and disposition)
- Record kept catch on unobserved hauls (species, weight, and disposition);
- Collect actual catch weights whenever possible, or alternatively, weight estimates derived by sub-sampling;
- Collect whole specimens, photos, and biological samples (i.e. scales, ear bones, and/or spines from fish, invertebrates, and incidental takes); and
- Assemble information on interactions with protected species, such as sea turtles, porpoise, dolphins, whales, and birds.
This program differs from the Northeast Fishery At-Sea Monitoring (ASM) Program, for which MRAG Americas is also a provider, in a number of ways. The ASM program is designed specifically to account for catch and discards of fishermen participating in the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program. NEFOP covers all fisheries, which could include sector program participants. The main difference between the ASM and NEFOP programs is that ASMs collect a reduced set of data, thereby reducing training time, gear requirements, and internal support resources; though it is possible for individual observers to be certified as both at-sea monitors and NEFOP observers. The ASM Program covers vessels from New York north to Maine. Point Judith, Gloucester, New Bedford, and Chatham, MA are the primary ports, but monitors deploy from numerous small ports. NEFOP observers deploy from the same New England ports, however, NEFOP observers also deploy from ports in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Trips in both programs range from 6 hours to 12 days.
MRAG provides bunkhouses for observer lodging throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region. Observers can stay at bunkhouses during travel and some observers reside there full time. MRAG reimburse mileage, tolls and misc. expenses for travel 50 miles or greater from observer’s/monitor’s home port. If travel occurs over multiple days, lodging and meals will be provided as well.
Observers/Monitors are paid an hourly wage based on experience. Pay is based on deployed time. Observer report their departure and arrival times via a smart phone application. MRAG employs five area coordinators and nine assistant coordinators to manage day to day operations and direct observer/monitor deployment.
The New England Fishery Management Council (NEFMC) created the NE Sector Program under Amendment 16 in 2010 to enhance rebuilding of depleted stocks in the Northeast fisheries. By incentivizing fishers to combine quotas and reduce the number of vessels fishing, the Sector program has created a better balance between effort and quota. Within the groundfish fishery, groups of vessel permit holders (at least three vessels per group) can voluntarily form a Sector, thus agreeing to fishing measures and procedures in exchange for a share of the annual catch limit (ACL). Sectors can divide the total quota from all members between vessels as they see fit, reporting their catch to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). This is accomplished in part by relying on At-Sea Monitors (ASMs) to collect data on the catch, discards, and protected species interactions with fishing gear.
MRAG Americas contracted with NMFS from April 2010 through April of 2016, to provide at-sea monitors (ASMs) onboard domestic fishing vessels to observe and document information related to commercial fishing operations. Sectors began paying for the program in late March of 2016.
ASMs collect data on catch, discards and bycatch while deployed on U.S. domestic fishing vessels participating in the groundfish fishery from Maine to New York. Vessels employ longline, trawl and gillnet fishing gear. ASMs are randomly assigned to vessels to ensure that coverage is fair and evenly distributed throughout the fleet.
ASM’s are hired by MRAG Americas. NMFS provides the training and certifies Observers at the Fishery Observer Training Center in Falmouth, MA. This facility is part of Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Fishery Sampling Branch (FSB) and provides program management, Observer training, data editing and data management. MRAG works closely with NOAA/NMFS to deploy and support the ASMs. More information on sector management is available from the NOAA Fisheries Greater Atlantic Regional Office.
At-Sea Monitors are required to:
- Collect scientific, management, compliance and other data at-sea, as deemed necessary by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). Data collection will be conducted through observations of fishing operations, interviews with vessel captains and crew, photographing catch, and measurements of selected portions of the catch and fishing gear.
- Collect data on fishing effort, location, and retained and discarded catch for each tow while aboard the vessel. They may also include length measurements from segments of the catch.
- Record, collect, and photograph all marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds incidentally caught in the fishing gear.
Fishing trips typically range from 1-14 days, leaving from any number of ports between Maine and New York. Monitors are typically assigned to a region and travel between ports may be required. Vessels are generally 30-100 feet in length and operate in ocean waters, 3-200 miles offshore in all weather conditions.
Interested in becoming an At-Sea Monitor? Please visit our Employment Opportunities.
In response to concerns that at-sea tuna transshipment operations constituted a gap in enforcement, in 2008 the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) adopted Recommendation [06-11] to establish an Observer program for transshipment on trans-pacific freezer carrier vessels transshipping tuna in the Eastern Pacific. This program is similar in structure to tuna transshipment Observer programs run by other tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (ICCAT and IOTC). MRAG Americas has been implementing the Regional Observer Program (ROP) since its inception in January 2009. The ROP aims to address Member State concerns regarding laundering of Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) tuna catches by monitoring transshipments at sea from Large Scale Longline Tuna Vessels (LSLTVs) operating in the Convention Area. Recommendation [06-11] states that all tuna and tuna like species transshipped in the Convention area must be done so in port. However, at sea transshipments can be authorized by Contracting Parties provided the Carrier Vessel (CV) has VMS capabilities and a trained IATTC observer is on board to monitor the process.
MRAG manages all aspects of the IATTC Observer program, including Observer recruiting, training, outfitting of gear, coordinating deployment and return, debriefing and the collection, processing and transmittal of data. MRAG developed the data collection, forms, sampling protocols, data management and debriefing protocols. Observer deployments last between two weeks and several months from ports such as Papeete, Majuro, Kaohsiung, and Shimizu and monitor the tuna offloads from Large Scale Tuna Long Line Vessels (LSTLVs). MRAG averages 2,200 deployed days per year, with effort peaking in October. MRAG has cultivated a high quality Observer roster for the IATTC program, with the 15 active Observers averaging more than 2,000 seadays apiece.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) administers the Alaska Shellfish Observer Program. Starting in 1988, the state began to collect data on the crab fisheries within the regions of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea that fall within the US Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ). Vessels were selected based on type of fishery and type of processing. Early on the ADF&G program was primarily an enforcement tool, however in recent years and following the rationalization of the crab fisheries (assigning quota shares to reduce fleet size), the program has shifted focus to the biological assessment of the fishery stocks.
Observers are assigned to Opilio Tanner Crab (snow crab) and Red King Crab catcher vessels based on a random drawing to achieve a 20% coverage level. These fisheries occur traditionally from January to April and October to November, respectively. Observers are also placed on 50% of fishing effort in the Brown King Crab catcher vessels west of Dutch Harbor and 100% of vessels directly fishing for Bairdi Tanner Crab. Observer coverage requirements also exist for the Korean Hair crab and Blue King Crab fisheries, however, low stock levels have kept these fisheries closed in recent history.
Working in Alaskan waters is often physically and mentally demanding. Rough seas are common, initial bouts of seasickness are very uncomfortable for many people, and the environment can be cold, wet and unpleasant. Vessel lengths range from 60 ft to over 300 ft. Living and working conditions on board vessels can be relatively cramped. On many vessels, fishing takes place 24 hours a day, while some vessels are equipped to go out to sea for longer than a month, the majority of trips typically last from one day to two weeks. An Observer’s work schedule follows the vessel’s fishing practices and is often erratic and unpredictable making it difficult to adhere to regular sleeping patterns. A typical day’s activities include heavy lifting (up to 80 pounds), climbing ladders, and working on rolling slippery decks. While at-sea and in Alaskan fishing ports, there is minimal access to amenities such as phones, computers and mail.
MRAG Americas has participated in the Alaska Marine Mammal Observer Program in conjunction with the NMFS Protected Resources Division in 2004 and 2005 and the NMFS Alaska Groundfish Observer Program from 2005 to 2017. From 2010-2013, MRAG contracted with vessels to provide Observers for the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery in Washington, Oregon, and California. In 2006, MRAG became the exclusive provider of Observers for the Longline Tuna and Swordfish Fisheries in Hawaii and American Samoa, this contract has since expired. MRAG also provided Observers for small programs in such as the Halibut Characterization Project working with early Electronic Monitoring. Other small projects occurred in New South Wales Australia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Electronic Monitoring (EM) for New England’s Groundfish Fishery
Client: Archipelago Marine Research, The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts
Project Partners: Fishermen from the NEFS Sector XI & NEFS Sector V, Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance/Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector
Period of Performance: Fishing Year 2016, 5/16 – 8/16
Project Summary: MRAG worked with Archipelago Marine Research as EM service provider to install and service EM imaging equipment on groundfish vessels from Cape Cod to collect data and refine proposed EM standards in preparation for a comprehensive EM program to monitor sector utilization of annual catch entitlements (Catch Shares). This program was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to support EM implementation in FY16 and the development of protocols for estimating vessel-specific discard rates. The Nature Conservancy worked closely with NMFS staff from GARFO, NEFSC Fisheries Sampling Branch and MRAG comparing electronic monitoring results with human observers coverage to test the feasibility of ground fish vessels throughout New England using approved EM systems to meet their catch monitoring obligations.
North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program
Client: Direct contract with vessel, NMFS Alaska Region
Period of Performance: 1/05 to 08/17
Project Summary: As the American harvest of groundfish resources replaced the foreign and joint-venture fisheries, domestic Observer programs were implemented to provide biological data in place of the former database provided by the Foreign Fisheries Observer Program. Currently all vessels over 60 feet require some level of Observer coverage, this falls into two categories; vessels under 125 ft in length require 30% coverage of fishing days and vessels 125 ft or greater require 100% coverage. Some vessels must carry two Observers while fishing under the American Fisheries Act (AFA) or Community Development Quotas (CDQ). In addition, Observers are required at shore-side plants harvesting or processing groundfish species within the US Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ, 3-200 miles offshore).
Alaska Marine Mammal Monitor Program
Client: NMFS Protected Resources
Period of Performance: 10/04 to 10/05
Project Summary: The National Marine Fisheries Service awarded MRAG Americas the 2005 contract to supply monitors of the salmon fisheries of Kodiak Island, AK for fishery interactions with marine mammals and seabirds. These salmon fisheries occur in remote locations, and require complex deployment plans to assure availability of monitors to meet coverage levels. MRAG provided staffing, logistics, management, safety protocols, and reporting of each phase of the program.
West Coast Trawl Catch Shares At-sea & Dockside Monitor Program
Client: Direct contract with vessel, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Council, NMFS Pacific Region
Period of Performance: 12/10 – 2/13
Project Summary: MRAG contracted directly with vessels to provide at-sea and shoreside monitors for the 100% coverage required in the Trawl IFQ program from Washington to Southern California. Observers were required to identify, count and weigh all discards at sea and whole haul the retained catch at the shoreside processor. Trips were 1 to 5 days long and vessels ranged from 30 to 80 ft in length. MRAG focused efforts in Charleston/Coos Bay, OR but provided Observers throughout the program area.
Halibut Bycatch Characterization Project
Client: Pacific States Marine Fisheries Council, NMFS, and Halibut Commission
Period of Performance: 3/08 to 3/09
Project Summary: MRAG coordinated with NMFS, the Halibut Commission, Pacific states, and Archipelago Marine Research to provide Observers to collect data for comparison to Electronic Monitoring images collected by Archipelago camera equipment. One or two Observers were deployed on Halibut IFQ vessels in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. MRAG also hired several Observers to complete data entry for the program.
Work as an Observer
Observers work aboard active fishing vessels. The work can be demanding and requires observers to be self-motivated, able to diplomatically perform duties, collect the required data in often trying situations, all in potentially harsh weather. An Observer must be flexible and creative as conditions, situations, and duties vary from vessel to vessel, and fishery to fishery.
Observer contracts differ with each Fishery Observer Program. Initial contracts are typically for three to four months, although our NEFOP and NE ASM programs require a full year commitment. After the initial contract period, there are typically seasonally dependent shorter periods of work. Observer opportunities are available primarily from October through April in the Alaska Shellfish fishery and from August to March in the IATTC program; NE fisheries are active year around. We are looking for motivated, responsible people interested in working multiple contracts over a year or more.
MRAG Americas believes in mutual aid and teamwork between management and employees and works hard to support all employees. In the ever-changing world of commercial fisheries management, Observers are the front line. Our staff has been involved with Fishery Observer Programs for many years as Observers and program Coordinators. We deal with our employees in a fair and equitable manner. We are an equal opportunity employer and we offer competitive pay and benefits for qualified employees.
All Shellfish Observers are expected to perform the following duties during the majority of shellfish harvesting effort, seven days a week. These procedures will require Observers to work long and unscheduled hours.
- Collect representative samples of biological length/width frequencies, noting shell age and condition of crab retained.
- Record daily catch rates of each catcher vessel, including number of crabs retained and number of pots fished.
- Record numbers, size, sex and condition of bycatch, by species, including all crab and fish.
- Observe the compliance or lack of compliance to fishing regulations. Document situations where violations are observed.
- Document the percentage of non-legal crab not immediately returned to the sea.
- Deliver periodic (weekly or daily) catch messages by radio to ADF&G as outlined in briefing.
Wages & Benefits
All days at sea and in port are paid at the daily rate; days between vessels (waiting days) in Anchorage are paid at half the daily rate, after the first five, and at the full rate after 10, with meal reimbursement and lodging throughout. Anchorage lodging is provided at the Puffin Inn. We also provide Air transportation from point of hire to the point of vessel embarkation and return through point of debriefing; food and lodging are provided by the vessel or MRAG. For more information on required qualifications and benefits please visit our Employment Opportunities.
For non-employment related questions:
Observer Operations Director
Northeast Observer Program Manager
For additional information:
MRAG America’s Hiring Coordinators
firstname.lastname@example.org or visit NOAA NEFOP Training
If you are interested in working for MRAG Americas as an observer in the Northeast Fishery Observer Program, please visit our Employment Opportunities.
MRAG Americas has developed a Joint Management Structure for NEFOP and ASM.
Our ability to service an extensive array of resource management needs is further extended through our network of collaborations with internationally acclaimed experts from academic institutions and other private organizations worldwide.