Observer Program

The North Pacific Observer Program is the largest observer program in the United States and is the primary source of fisheries dependent data collected from commercial fishing vessels in Alaska. Observers deployed on vessels and in processing plants collect biological samples and generate independent estimates of catch and discards.  Stock assessment scientists use observer data to estimate fish stock abundance, provide information on fishing effort, and better understand fishing interactions with habitat. 

In 2013, the Observer Program was restructured to include the commercial halibut sector, as well as vessels under 60 feet in length. This expanded coverage is funded by a 1.25% fee on ex-vessel landings.   Under the new program, a portion of the small boat fleet is randomly selected to carry observers based on an annual sampling plan developed by NMFS in consultation with Council.  The 2016 Annual Deployment Plan developed by NMFS can be found here.

From NOAA's draft 2017 Annual Deployment Plan, the preliminary deployment rates for the trip selection strata in are: 

- No selection: 0%
- Hook and line: 11%
- Tender hook and line: 27%
- Pot: 3%
- Tender pot: 6%
- Trawl: 18%
- Tender trawl: 14%

For information about ALFA's cooperative research on developing Electronic Monitoring as an alternative to human observers, click here

The following tables are from the Observer Program 2015 Annual Report. 

Below are some frequently asked questions related to fish handling with an observer or EM system on board. 


1. What are the approved methods for releasing sub legal halibut?
See IPHC Pacific Halibut Fishery Regulations 2014.14. Careful Release of Halibut
(1) All halibut that are caught and are not retained shall be immediately released outboard of the roller and returned to the sea with a minimum of injury by:
(a) hook straightening;
(b) cutting the gangion near the hook; or
(c) carefully removing the hook by twisting it from the halibut with a gaff

2. Can a vessel bring small halibut onboard to measure them?
See IPHC Pacific Halibut Fishery Regulations 2013. Except that paragraph (1) shall not prohibit the possession of halibut on board a vessel that has been brought aboard to be measured to determine if the minimum size limit of the halibut is met and, if sublegal-sized, is promptly returned to the sea with a minimum of injury. (laying in a checker with other fish would be considered possession, an under size halibut needs to be brought onboard measured and released, not left in a checker until someone gets around to measuring).

3. Are there any other species requiring careful release or which cannot be brought onboard?
See 50 CFR 679.21 Prohibited Species bycatch management.
§ 679.21 Prohibited species bycatch management.
(a) [Reserved].
(b) General.
(1) See § 679.2 and Table 2b to this part for definition of prohibited species.
(2) Prohibited species catch restrictions.
The operator of each vessel engaged in directed fishing for groundfish in the GOA or BSAI must:
(i) Minimize its catch of prohibited species.
(ii) After allowing for sampling by an observer, if an observer is aboard, sort its catch immediately afterretrieval of the gear and, except for salmon prohibited species catch in the BS and GOA pollock fisheries under paragraph (c) or (h) of this section, or any prohibited species catch as provided (in permits issued) under § 679.26, return all prohibited species, or parts thereof, to the sea immediately, with a minimum of injury, regardless of its condition.
See § 679.2
Prohibited species means any of the species of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis), Pacific herring (Clupea harengus pallasi), king crab, and Tanner crab (see Table 2b to this part), caught by a vessel issued an FFP under § 679.4(b) while fishing for groundfish in the BSAI or GOA, unless retention is authorized by other applicable laws, including the annual management measures published in the Federal Register pursuant to § 300.62 of this title. Prohibited species catch (PSC) means any of the species listed in Table 2b to this part. (See Attached Table 2b)

4. Are vessels required to retain sablefish or halibut which are severely damaged by predation (whales, sharks, and sand fleas, etc.)?
This subject does not seem to be addressed directly in regulation. What is addressed is that all halibut over 32 inches in length must be retained if there is IFQ quota remaining for that area onboard. This would also literally mean one that was bitten in half if it was still over 32 inches long. I would argue that a sable fish head that is brought up could be thrown back since you can clean sablefish and throw their head and guts overboard while retaining the rest of the body. A sand flea infested carcass will run in two different categories, ones with edible meat still on them and ones with out. The ones with edible meat that are of legal length would have to be retained, even though you might not be able to sell the fish. The ones that are skin and bones only could be released but have to be reported on the fish ticket. Keep in mind that all of these fish need to be reported on the fish ticket.

5. Are there any species that cannot be cut up for bait while fishing, besides halibut , sablefish and DSR? (Lingcod? Octopus?)
Halibut are not allowed to be cut up for bait (with the exception of heads returned after first landing them at a recognized and licensed location) DSR and Lingcod are regulated by state. I believe you can’t use them form bait but check with the state. Any fish used as bait must be reported on the fish ticket.
(From Dan Falvey’s conversation with ADF&G Enforcement) State Regulations 5 AAC 28.190 prohibit using sablefish, lingcod, thornyheads, rougheye, shortraker, and yelloweye for bait. Other groundfish species can be used. The regulations also say that “a person who takes groundfish for bait during a fishing trip and uses the bait during that trip, must report the bait taken by species and estimated weight on a fish ticket prepared for that fishing trip; a person who makes a separate set to harvest groundfish for bait must report that harvest to the department on a fish ticket using the gear card for the species for which the bait was intended and must submit the fish ticket within seven days after landing that species;”

6. If the first fish on a trip is a rock fish, is the skipper allowed to retain it or required to release it?
If fishing in state waters you would retain it. If fishing in federal waters and it is a shortraker or rougheye you would release it as these species are based off of a percentage of your target species (halibut or sablefish) that you have onboard at that time. DSR is 100% retention so you would keep it.

7. On vessels required to fill out logbooks, what happens if the skipper’s estimate of discard is different than the observers/EM? What is allowable error?
I am not aware of there being an allowable error in one’s estimate in regulation. An estimate is just that, some people are better at it than others. If there was a large difference over time in the estimates between the observers and the skipper it might be looked at, but under the observer conditions this fleet are under this would have to be a very extreme incident to warrant an investigation into estimates being off.

8. Can the Crew eat fish caught while on the fishing trip? Can they bring fish from home, including subsistence caught fish, to eat?
Regulation says that all halibut must be offloaded and weighed. There is no provision that allows one to cut up a halibut that has been caught while IFQ halibut fishing for eating on the vessel. There is regulation that allows the halibut to be filleted after landing it but it can only remain on the vessel until 1800 hours of the day following the off load. Subsistence and sport caught halibut may not be on the vessel when commercial caught halibut are onboard (50 CFR 300.66 explains this in more detail) so this limits the ability to bring those items from home on the vessel when halibut must be retained. Prohibited species would also not be allowed to be eaten while fishing for halibut or groundfish. One could eat a P. Cod and report it on the Fish ticket if in Federal waters. If fishing in State waters check the state regulations. Keep in mind that fish retained for bait or personal consumption are required to be reported on the fish ticket at the time of landing.

9. What does the vessel operator need to do if a seabird comes up on the line dead?
Observers will ask for these birds so they can record what type it is. They may even ask you to store it for them or freeze it until the vessel returns to port. Careful release is required if the bird is alive. If the bird is dead there is not any requirement to keep it.

Table 2b to Part 679 - Species Codes: FMP Prohibited Species and CR Crab
Box Lopholithodes mandtii 900 ./
Dungeness Cancer mal(ister 910 ./
King, blue Paralithodes p/atvous 922 ./ ./
King, golden (brown) Lithodes aequispinus 923 ./ ./
King, red Paralithodes camtshaticus 921 ./ ./
King, scarlet (deepsea) Lithodes couesi 924 ./
Korean horsehair crab Erimacrus isenbeckii 940 ./
Multispinus crab Paralomis multisoinus 951 ./
Tanner, Bairdi Chionoecetes bairdi 931 ./ ./
Tanner, grooved Chionoecetes ta11neri 933 ./
Tanner, snow Chionoecetes opilio 932 ./ ./
Tanner, triangle Chionoecetes anl(ulatus 934 ./
Verrilli crab Para/omis verrrilli 953 ./
PACIFIC HALIBUT Hioool(/ossus stenolepis 200 ./
PACIFIC HERRING Family Clupeidae 235 ./
Chinook (king) Oncorhynchus 410 ./
Chum (do2) Oncorhvnchus keta 450 ./
Coho (silver) Oncorhvnchus kisutch 430 ./
Pink (humpback) Oncorhvnchus 2orbuscha 440 ./
Sockeve (red) Oncorhvnchus nerka 420 ./
STEELHEAD TROUT Oncorhvnchus mvkiss 540 ./
Tab2b.doc Table 2b to part 679 Page 1of1
Updated January 14, 2009

To read all the info on the NOAA website regarding the Observer Program visit this page. There is a very informative "Frequently Asked Questions" section on that page.