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SPC trains out of work fisheries observers as port samplers to continue flow of scientific data

By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press

 September 6, 2020
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the travel restrictions that came along with it, fisheries observers have not been allowed to board vessels to perform the function they once did. Before the pandemic, all purse seiner vessels in Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) and Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) waters in the Pacific Ocean were required to have an official fisheries observer aboard to record catches.

Many people have assumed that the role of fisheries observers was strictly to ensure that fishing vessel operators played by the rules. But the observers also played an important role in providing data to scientists on fish migration patterns and stock levels. The data they recorded helped organizations like the SPC which employs over 60 scientists to prepare analyses that are fed to organizations such as FFA, PNA, and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission in order to make important decisions on fisheries limits.

With observers no longer boarding purse seiner, scientists would have lost an important source of data in analysing fish population trends. Additionally, fisheries observers would have been out of a job. In late June, fisheries observers in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands were the first group of observers to receive online training as port samplers. Caroline Sanchez, SPC’s Senior Fisheries Scientist said that the training was successful and that because of it, not only will fisheries observers have alternative work arrangements, SPC and others will continue to receive vital data.

Fisheries observers are now collecting data from longline fishing vessels who transship at home ports. They will look for and document tagged fish, species caught, and their sizes and weights. While the plan will not necessarily help with fisheries enforcement, other methods of monitoring for that are in place including the vessel monitoring system.

Despite the pandemic, SPC is continuing its online fisheries observers training in other Pacific Island countries with the hopes of maintaining an ongoing flow of vital scientific fisheries information.