Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The life of an observer on board

Interview with Gema Canal

Observers on board are specialists that work on board of commercial fishing vessels or at fish processing plants. They can be employed by a fisheries observer program, such as MRAG Americas INC (working on North Pacific groundfish), either by a third-party contractor or by a governmental agency. An observer on-board is mandatory for some cases, for example for all the member countries of ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas). Fisheries, mammal and bird research depend on the information provided by observers, which is considered the only independent source of data available from fishing operations.
Gema Canal is a marine biologist that works as an observer on-board on fishing boats since 2005. Currently, she works an observer on-board for two research groups: the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the ICCAT.

Which are the tasks of an observer on-board?

The observer on-board is a person that works for scientific organizations, like ICCAT, or CCAMLR, hired through consultancy agencies1. For each survey2 the scientific organization determines the tasks that the observer has to develop on-board. That means that the observer has to know different fisheries, species and legislations and be ready to spend a period of time at sea that can vary from one day to 6 months.
The tasks vary widely, from observing if the fishing legislation is being followed during the fishing operation and reporting any eventual infraction, to collecting biological data of the species (size, weight, maturity stage, etc.) and data of each fishing operation (date, location, gear used, etc.)

Why is it important the work of an observer on-board for the marine conservation?

It is important for two main reasons. First, the observer is in charge of making sure the vessel adheres to fishing guidelines. Second, all the data collected on-board are essential to do the stock assessment of target species, to know the status of fishing grounds and also to evaluate the proportion of discards and by-catch.

What are the dangers of this work?

Most importantly, the observer is exposed to all the dangers common to any seafarer, i.e. accidents, fires, sinking ... and adding to these, there is the attitude displayed by some fishing crew when they do not want someone in a regulatory position who is reporting any wrongdoing in the vessel. Mobbing sometimes happens in such cases, which is aggravated by the facts that observers normally work alone and in usually conflicting fisheries.
In closer fishing grounds observers can access the Internet. Observers usually send their reports using a computer available at the vessel and, therefore, information leakage is common. The already delicate situation of an observer can be worsened when they report an illegal operation or a possible violation.

How long an observer does usually stay at sea? 

In my specific case I need to work on at least two surveys (fishing operations) a year. I usually do one long survey of 4-5 months and a shorter one of about one month. On average you usually spend 6 months at sea. The maximum I have spent was 5 months and 14 days. But I've also had campaigns of 20 days only.

What is the proportion of women that do this work? 

The proportion of women varies depending on the project and the conditions of the vessel. The long surveys with a reduced space on-board are normally assigned to men, even though there have been many cases in which a woman observer had to share a cabin with an officer of the vessel.
To summarize, there are projects where women are the majority and others where there is barely any women.

What are the measures that you think should be taken to improve the conditions of the observers?
Experienced observers are highly qualified people, but due to poor working conditions and insecure temporary contracts, they always seek for better paying and more stable and safer jobs. This results in them being replaced by cheaper and less experienced staff and this is a great disadvantage that influences the quality of the data collected and therefore the assessment and management of fish stocks. Improved working conditions would benefit not only the observer herself but also the functioning of the system. These improvements could include the establishment of a minimum wage, paid vacation, and benefits.
Another major problem is that the work of an observer is poorly considered or valued by the scientific community. There is, for example, the opinion that the work of an observer can be done by anyone or even be replaced by a camera (iObserver).

Recently, an observer on-bard went missing during a survey, what do you think about it? 

What happened to Keith Davis is a great tragedy, and it is not common. Shipment conditions vary widely and in my case I can say that my experiences are mostly satisfactory. Despite the fact that there is always the feeling of being isolated during a survey, once you overcome this point you can have a unique experience with marine life.