Fishery observer survey seeks answers for high turnover

  • Federal managers are analyzing information from fisheries observers to pinpoint reasons for the high rate of turnover in an occupation that is vital to operating in Alaska where catch and bycatch must be recorded. (Photo/Courtesy/National Marine Fisheries Service)

Many of Alaska’s commercial fisheries depend on observers having a place on board, but fewer than a fifth of them feel appreciated by the industry, according to a new survey.

Fishery observers sail on vessels with fishermen in federal waters and keep track of catch and bycatch and take biological samples throughout trips. Managers use this information to evaluate stocks and manage fisheries.

The job can be tough, requiring up to a month at a time on the water in rough conditions, and turnover can be high. The survey, conducted by the National Marine Fishery Service in 2016, asked 553 observers why they did the job and what their experiences have been like.

Although three-quarters of them thought the job helped them in their careers and about 69 percent said the days at sea matched their expectations, nearly half them reported being harassed. Only 20 percent said they felt valued by the fishing community, and many said they were disappointed by a lack of opportunity to learn more about science and management, according to the survey findings, published in May.

The original intent of the survey was to help improve retention. Most observers quit after a few years — the West Coast, with about 5½ years, has the longest average tenure. Alaska’s average tenure is about 4.8 years, according to the survey data. Although observers have to have some training or education before taking the job, there’s a lot they learn through experience.

“Because the technical skills observers possess take time to hone and are essential to good data collection, retaining knowledgeable and hardworking observers is important to NOAA Fisheries,” the report states. “It is widely recognized that an observer’s job requires field skills and scientific knowledge that may require many deployments before gaining proficiency.”

Many of the observers start their careers young, between the ages of 20 to 29, and leave the job as they get older. Most cite a chance for fieldwork as a major motivation for taking the job, but relatively low pay, lack of a predictable schedule and distance from home leads them to leave later.

About 46 percent reported being harassed on the job, though, with only about a third reporting it every time. About 40 percent reported it some of the time and 27 percent never reported, according to the survey.

“This survey also did not specify what type of harassment observers may have experienced or reported during their careers,” the survey states. “Incidents reported in this survey could include anything from a glare, to interfering with a workstation, to physical or sexual assault.”

Observers cited different reasons for not reporting: disappointment with how the report was handled, a chance to resolve the issue at sea, worry about work reputation or choosing to let the issue go.

Connected to the reports of harassment, the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement is conducting a followup anonymous survey specific to the North Pacific region. Preliminary data was presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2018, with final data included in a report to the council in December 2018.

Only 25 percent of observers responded, according to the Office of Law Enforcement report. Responses indicated that incidents of harassment fell between 2016 and 2017, though 45 percent of female observers still said they experienced verbal sexual harassment in 2017 though few reported it.

The national observing program is massive. Alaska alone had about 413 observers, and about 4,423 trips were either observed by a person or an electronic system in 2018, according to the 2018 annual report on the observer program in the North Pacific from NMFS.

Some of Alaska’s vessels require full coverage, such as catcher-processors, meaning all of the catch is recorded on every trip, while others only require partial observation, such as catcher vessels fishing for halibut or sablefish, meaning only some of the fishing trips are observed.

About 53 percent of the respondents worked in Alaska, with the majority in halibut or groundfish fisheries. One of the common problems is a shortage of certified observers for fisheries in the region; not enough observers have been certified in fixed-gear lead level 2, or LL2, fisheries.

Survey respondents cited too much work with low salaries as the reason for not seeking further certification, or a lack of flexibility in choosing deployments. Alaska-based observers responded that they were happy with the variety of deployment types, according to the survey.

Changes are on the horizon for fishery observer coverage, though; vessel owners are beginning to install electronic monitoring devices or use electronic reporting systems. Most survey respondents said they supported electronic monitoring and reporting, though electronic systems can’t collect the biological samples that observers do.

Last year was the first year that Alaska commercial fishing vessels were allowed to use electronic monitoring systems, and according to NMFS reports, it went off without a single violation on the 145 vessels that used those systems. The agency planned to open up an additional 20 spots to vessels for electronic monitoring in 2019.

EM is particularly attractive for smaller vessels, where it’s hard to fit an additional person on board without leaving a crewmember behind. It may also pencil out to be cheaper; the 2018 annual report from NMFS cites an average daily cost for EM of between $956 and $1,527, while the average observer cost per sea day on a partial-coverage vessel was $1,380.

The survey findings noted that the program will communicate better that electronic report and monitoring may have practical applications but that EM “is unable to replace observer coverage in all circumstances.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/29/2019 - 8:34am

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