Observer Program

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, all Category I or II fishery participants (those with a frequent or occasional level of serious injury or mortality) are required to carry an observer on fishing trips when requested by NOAA Fisheries or a designated contractor providing observer services to NOAA Fisheries.  Vessels must also meet the United States Coast Guard safety requirements for carrying observers.  NOAA Fisheries may also place observers on Category III fishing vessels if the incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals from the fishery may be contributing to the immediate and significant impact on a species or stock listed as threatened or endangered (for observer regulatory requirements, see 50CFR 229.4 and 229.5).

Observer programs are a vital component of the fishery management process because they are one of the best ways to gather current data on the status of marine fisheries.  This program helps NMFS collect the most complete, unbiased, and relevant data possible, which prevents over-regulation and ensures the sustainability of fisheries and the conservation of protected species populations.

.NOAA Fisheries uses observer data to:

  • Track the effectiveness of gear modifications;
  • Determine whether appropriate conservation measures are in place for commercial fisheries to reduce bycatch of marine mammals;
  • Identify new fishing patterns;
  • Identify ways for fishermen to fish more cleanly, thereby reducing bycatch and allowing for more fishing time; and
  • Monitor incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals.

How Will You Know When You Have to Carry an Observer?

Fishermen and fishing industry representatives will be notified whenever possible to provide advance notification to a fishery that observer coverage will be required.  Fishermen may be selected for observer coverage either by letter, phone, or direct request by NOAA Fisheries personnel, designated contractors, or by observers themselves. If selected to carry an observer, a vessel may not engage in any Category I or II fishing operation unless an observer is on board.

What are My Responsibilities When Carrying Observer?

  • Allowing the observer access to all areas of the vessel.
  • Allowing the observer access to communications equipment and navigation equipment, when available on the vessel.
  • Providing the observer with vessel locations by latitude and longitude, accurate to the minute or by loran coordinates.
  • Allowing for the sampling, retention, and storage of marine mammal specimens and other protected species specimens, or target and non-target catch specimens, if adequate facilities are available and if feasible.
  • Allowing observations or research to be conducted by the observer without impairing these activities while they are being carried out.
  • Notifying the observer in a timely fashion when all commercial fishing operations are to begin and end.
  • Providing accommodations and food to the observer equivalent to those provided to the crew.
  • Allowing for the embarking and disembarking of the observer: ensuring that transfers of observers at sea are accomplished in a safe manner, via small boat or raft, during daylight hours as weather and sea conditions allow, and with the agreement of the observer(s) involved.
  • Complying with other guidelines or regulations that NMFS may develop to ensure the effective deployment and use of observers.

What are the Safety Requirements for Carrying an Observer?

  1. Complying with the United States Coast Guard (USCG) safety requirements while at sea.
  2. Obtaining a Commercial Fishery Vessel Safety Examination Decal by successfully completing a USCG safety examination. Safety decals are valid for two years. Safety examinations are completed dockside at no cost by calling the USCG Marine Safety Office Dockside Examiners.
  3. Allowing an observer, NOAA Fisheries personnel, or designated observer service provider to visually inspect any safety or accommodation requirement if requested (50 CFR § 600.746(c)(2)).
Three images of observers

Note: Vessels that do not have a current and valid safety decal are considered unsafe for purposes of carrying an observer. Vessels that are required and selected to carry an observer, but do not have the safety decal, are prohibited from fishing without observer coverage (50 CFR § 600.746(f)).

For a complete list of all Category I and II, that may be subject to observer coverage, visit: