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Northeast Fisheries Observer Program

We play a vital role in the conversation and management of the fisheries from Maine to North Carolina.

Zachary Fyke, in orange weather gear and black hoodie in front of lobster shack.

Fishery observers are our eyes and ears on the water. They collect data from commercial fishing and processing vessels as well as from shore-side processing plants. The Northeast Fisheries Observer Program trains, deploys, debriefs, and oversees more than 120 observers each year. These observers are professionally trained biological scientists who collect catch data dockside and onboard fishing vessels. This data is used for in-season management, stock assessments, and ecosystems studies.

We put in place rigorous quality control and quality assurance processes to ensure the data collected by observers the highest quality possible. Observers provide information on fish and wildlife, their habitats, as well as human activities and actions that may impact coastal and ocean ecosystems. Observers are the only independent data source for some types of at-sea information. This information includes marine mammal, sea bird, and sea turtle interactions with commercial fisheries, as well as bycatch composition and mortality.

How Observer Data Are Used

Observer data provide unique and independent information collected at sea critical to the effective management of our marine resources. The data are used in various ways to support sustainable fisheries and recover protected species.

Support Stock Assessments and Fishery Management

Observer data directly inform stock assessments to monitor the health of fisheries. Fisheries managers use observer data to set catch levels, maintain healthy fish populations, and rebuild overfished stocks.

Reduce Bycatch

Commercial fishery catch includes two components: kept catch and discarded catch. Kept catch is landed and sold, while discarded catch is thrown back into the ocean. Because some of the discards do not survive, NOAA Fisheries is working with fishermen and others to modify commercial fishing gear to reduce unwanted bycatch. When a gear modification is made, data collection is essential to make sure the modified gear is working as intended.


FishWatch provides up-to-date information and facts about U.S. seafood, so consumers and businesses can make informed decisions and be pointed toward sustainable choices. Observer data help assess the state of the fishery, determine impacts to habitats, and evaluate bycatch for FishWatch.

Scientific and Research Community

Every year the Fishery Sampling Branch receives requests for non-confidential fisheries data for use in research from government agencies, the commercial fishing industry, and academic institutions across the country. From 2015–2019 the program processed more than 300 of these data requests.

Explore New or Smaller Fisheries

The fishing industry constantly evolves as new technology is developed and new markets open. Observers are there to collect baseline data for managers to determine if the resource could be—or still is—fished sustainably.

Document Species

In 2018, our fisheries observers spent about 10,782 days (~172,200 hours) at sea, where they encountered many types of fish, mammals, seabirds, and invertebrates. The Species Verification Program documents the accuracy of identification by requiring observers to photograph or submit a wide variety of commercially important species, endangered species, or species of particular concern. This data provides feedback to observers and are used to improve observer training methods, support improved data accuracy, and evaluate species-specific data reliability. The program records provide high-confidence data on species distributions used to identify important and shifting species-specific habitats and ranges.

Gallery from our observers

Special Collections

Due to their specialized training and equipment, observers offer a unique opportunity by collecting biological samples to support new research or fill data gaps. They help promote long-term sustainability of fishing ecosystems by working collaboratively with fishermen, scientists, and resource managers.

Information for Northeast Fisheries Observer Program

Observer Employers


Observer Qualifications

To become an observer, you must meet the following qualifications:


You must have 1) a bachelor’s degree, 2) at least one class in math or statistics and a minimum of 30 biological credit hours, and 3) experience with computers.


You must be able to work for extended periods of time at sea, sharing common facilities in close quarters. Observers must be able to lift and or drag heavy objects, climb ladders, tolerate stress, work long hours, and live in confined spaces.


You must be a U.S. citizen, or a non-citizen who has a green card, TN authorization, H1 visa, or valid work visa, and a social security card.


You must hold a current certification for CPR and First Aid. You must successfully pass an observer certification course and receive a medical clearance from your doctor stating you are fit for sea duty.

Conflict of Interest

You must not have any direct or indirect interest in a fishery managed under federal regulations, including vessels, dealers, shipping companies, sectors, sector managers, or advocacy groups.

Information for Vessel Owners and Operators

Pre-Trip Notification Requirement

Owners/operators of vessels in the following fisheries are required to notify Northeast Fisheries Observers Program prior to each trip.

Internet (preferred method)

This should be the primary means of trip notification and trip changes. Vessels should log in to the Pre-Trip Notification System using the same username (Permit Number) and password (PIN) that they use for Fish-On-Line.


This should be the secondary means of trip notification. The email address to submit trip notifications, trip changes, questions, or problems is


This is the backup means for notification. The number for notifications is (855) FISHES1 [(855) 347-4371]. At this number, the Pre-Trip Notification System Coordinator is available from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM on business days. After business hours and on weekends and holidays, calls will be fielded by an answering service operator who is qualified to enter notifications, to answer frequently asked questions, and to help troubleshoot common issues. In emergency situations, the operator will immediately contact a NOAA Fisheries representative for assistance.


For more information on the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, contact Katherine McArdle at or (508) 495-2377.


Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on August 26, 2021