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Fisheries Observer: The Hidden Side of Species Management

By Leonardo Zaklikowski

If I told you I was a fisheries observer, 95% of people would have no idea what that means. As a marine biology major in college I had never heard of a fisheries observer until well after I graduated. It’s a hidden job, outside of the fisheries industry itself, but has great importance in regards to our oceans and fisheries sustainability. It's a tough job with many upsides and downsides, but it’s a job I think more people should know about.

I work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) through an outside company. There are many programs under NOAA, and many don’t deal with fisheries, but in the end we are mostly concerned about the West Coast Groundfish Observer Program (WCGOP). I work looking specifically at groundfish: primarily rockfish, flatfish, and sablefish (black cod). The role of observers and WCGOP is to assess the amount of fish that are discarded. Each boat’s catch can be broken down into target species, bycatch, and discard. Bycatch in this sense is anything caught that wasn't intended, but still has market value and is kept and sold at a fish plant. Discard, however, is everything and anything that fishermen do not want. For a while, the U.S. government didn't have any idea of what was being discarded at sea. They had no way of knowing what was being caught and not recorded. So, WCGOP was created. But what does an observer such as I do?

In short, I observe fish. I go out on boats with fishermen and sample all or part of the discard they catch, while taking notes on certain retained fish and fishing effort as well. The majority of my job is sorting through fish and marine species then counting and weighing them. This sounds easy enough, but sometimes hauls are 10,000 pounds, with over 1,000 of that discarded. Sometimes you only have a few hours between hauls and have to race against time to make sure everything gets done. The most important thing in my job is to record priority species and regulated species. Back in 2001 many rockfish species were considered overfished, but in 2012 only eight were. Now in 2019 we are down to only two species considered overfished. Many of the species who have recovered to healthier stocks weren’t expected to do so for many years into the future. Some species had an expected recovery year as far as 2050! However, they have recovered all the same. This gives light to just how effective WCGOP has been to protect heavily fished species.

There are many aspects to this job that I enjoy a lot. For one, I get to be doing hands-on science, contributing to the regulation of species in an effective program. I really feel like I am doing a lot of good by working hard. If it weren’t for the observers, and the seemingly endless paperwork we have, none of this would work and none of the species WCGOP has helped protect would be where they are now. Secondly, I am able to go out to sea constantly. I’ve always enjoyed being on boats, and while these aren't luxury yachts, being able to be at sea for days at end is somewhat of a dream come true.

There are times when I see whales or rare sea birds (such as Laysans Albatross,) or deep-sea fish and invertebrates I thought I’d never get to except for on Blue Planet.

I also have a new appreciation for the work it takes fishermen to do their job. I always knew it was a hard job that required a lot of physically demanding work, but seeing it in person is something new altogether.

However, as with any job, there are downsides. There are times when the seas are rough and even the hardiest of stomachs get seasick. You’re constantly wet and smelly. Often you only have a few hours of rest between hauls, and you rarely get a full night’s sleep on a boat. Perhaps the worst aspect is having to be on call 24/7. There are no guarantees on getting time off! As they say, the sea waits for no one. At any moment I can get a call saying I need to cover a boat for 4 days starting at 4:00 am. Sometimes, I only have 3 or 4 hours between one trip and another. Often, I have to drive multiple hours to get to the boat I need to cover. I’m based in one port, but due to how understaffed the program is, I’m often needed somewhere else. All of this can get pretty draining and tiring.

However, there are certain moments that make it all worth it. There are days where the ocean is as flat as a lake, the sun is high without a cloud in the sky, the breeze is light and cooling, the water is a deep, bright blue, and you look around seeing the remnants of the coastal mountains barely peeking over the horizon. In those moments you realize just what a beautiful place you get to work. You realize in these moments that this beats any desk job. You’re working hard, but working for a good cause. The West Coast Groundfish Observer Program is hard and demanding, but for what it does for our oceans, it's all worth it.

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