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Resource Ecology & Fisheries Management (REFM) Division

U.S. North Pacific Groundfish Observer Program

Biasing Observer Data Results in Fines and Imprisonment

Halibut bycatch in the groundfish fisheries is managed through caps on the total weight of halibut caught by vessels targeting groundfish. Estimates of halibut bycatch are based on data collected by onboard observers. After the observer has sampled the entire catch for species composition, any halibut present are discarded by the vessel. Effective management of the halibut bycatch caps in groundfish fisheries depends on high quality, accurate data provided by observers.

NOAA Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement (OLE) released information in January regarding the prosecution of two individuals for biasing observer data and fines levied against the individualsí employer. Unimak Fisheries was fined $300,000 by the OLE for infractions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act by filing false reports to NMFS regarding halibut bycatch during groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska (GOA) in 1999 and 2000.

The crew of a vessel owned by Unimak Fisheries, the F/V Unimak, attempted to hide catch of halibut from the onboard observer in an effort to under-report the catch of halibut. Unimak Fisheries also must pay $200,000 in restitution to the International Pacific Halibut Commission, was suspended from fishing during the January 2005 groundfish season for 14 days, is on 18 months probation, and must hire an expert to examine and correct policies which may have promoted the criminal activity. For their parts in the crime, Captain Paul Ison and First Mate Daniel Skauge of the F/V Unimak, were sentenced to 4 months in prison, fined $25,000, ordered to pay $25,000 in restitution to the International Pacific Halibut Commission, must forego employment in the fishing industry for one year, and write an article for a fishing journal explaining their criminal behavior. Efforts to stop and penalize the biasing of observer data are important to the AFSC because of the reliance of scientists and managers on the data provided by the Observer Program.

Presentation to North Pacific Fishery Management Council

Members of the Observer Program gave an evening presentation about the Observer Program during the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) meeting in February. The informational meeting provided an opportunity for NPFMC members, industry members, and other interested parties to learn more about the Observer Program and to ask questions of staff.

Observer Services

Brian Mason taught a large class of 28 observer trainees in January. Observer training is an intensive 3-week course. Topics include sampling techniques and procedures, identification of fish, invertebrate, marine mammal, and seabirds, at-sea safety, and use of ATLAS, our electronic data entry and transmission system. The classes held at the AFSC afford trainees opportunities to meet and interact with Observer Program staff and some of the scientists who use the data collected by observers. Training classes are also held at the University of Alaska Anchorage Observer Training Center.

Field Operations

The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) in cooperation with the Observer Program and NMFS Alaska Regional Office will be conducting an experiment this summer similar to work done in 2003. The project will occur during the summer central GOA trawl fishery from 5 July through mid-August. This period will cover three different fisheries and allow the agencies to conduct further trials of an alternative observer deployment model. In this model, the agency dictates where and when observers are deployed rather than the current system where individual vessels decide when to take observer coverage.

An addition to this summerís project will be the use of brailers (nylon meshed collapsible bags), for collecting species composition samples at sea on a subset of the vessels. Observers typically collect catch using baskets or by diverting some of the catch from the vesselís stern deck. Brailers may offer a way to collect samples randomly while eliminating the potential bias of catch stratification on the deck. Both the traditional sampling and brailer sampling methods will be compared to a census of observed deliveries to evaluate the accuracy of these methods.

Information and Monitoring Technologies

During the first quarter of this year, 542,319 data records from vessels and processing plants were received, checked for errors, and loaded into the NORPAC inseason database. Quality control data checks are performed by both automated computer routines and by Observer Program staff. Staff members review the data for potential errors or problems and contact observers at sea via our custom software (ATLAS) to ask the observers to check and correct any errors or problems identified in their data. This system enables us to provide near real-time data to our clients.

Operations and Administration

Observer Program staff members are working with NPFMC staff on analyses to support the NPFMC decision-making process relative to the future status of the Observer Program. Staff members are also working with staff from the NMFS Alaska Regional Office on issues related to the implementation of other NPFMC actions. Amendment 80, a proposal to reduce bycatch, minimize fish waste, and improve utilization of fish resources in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, will rely in part on bycatch and discard data collected by observers. The GOA Rockfish Pilot Program, a 2-year program intended to improve management of the GOA fisheries, will likely impact observer sampling and coverage protocols.

By Allison Barns


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