In News

Search Site
Search WWW


Fisheries Observer Job Description

A.I.S., Inc. is contracted by the National Marine Fisheries Service's (NMFS) Northeast Region Fisheries Observer Program to provide observer coverage on commercial fishing vessels from Maine to North Carolina. 

A.I.S., Inc. posts announcements for observer training sessions and accepts applications. We interview the most qualified candidates and select the best for training. Trainees are A.I.S. employees, trained and certified by NMFS to become Fisheries Observers qualified to observe in the Northeast Region Fisheries Observer Program.

The observer’s job duties are to accompany commercial fishing vessels on fishing trips and record information about the boat, gear, species caught and discarded, fish length frequencies, and biological samples. Observers also record incidental takes of marine mammals, sea turtles, or sea birds. Fishing vessel trip durations last from one day for smaller boats, such as gill netters, 5 -7 day trips for trawlers, and up to 10 - 14 days for scallop boats.

Home Ports

When a candidate is offered a position, they are assigned a homeport. In general, we try to match a homeport assignment to where the trainee would prefer to be. However, our sea day schedule determines how many observers we need in a port and which ports are assigned observers.

Observers work from their residence in their homeport.  The observer reports directly to their Area Coordinator (AC). The AC introduces the new observer to the port, the boats, and some of the captains. The AC may also arrange some of the initial trips for the observer. Then, it becomes the observer’s duty to become familiar with the port, contact the captains, and arrange their own trips. 



Pelicans on Pound Net


Northern Fulmer


Recording data


Sea Days

On a monthly basis, NMFS assigns A.I.S.,Inc. the number of observer sea days required for each gear type, port, fishery. The AC provides the observer with the types of vessels, and the number of sea days the observer should obtain for that month. Since the AC is their supervisor, the observers must keep in daily contact with their AC’s to let them know how vessel coverage is going.

Trips are made when the fishermen fish, including weekends and holidays. If observers are requested to travel to a different port in order to meet these assignments, A.I.S.,Inc. pays for all travel and lodging expenses. Therefore, an observer must have their own transportation, and must be able to travel on short notice. Being flexible is key to being an observer.


Onboard Vessels

The observer works alone on the fishing vessel. Before boarding the vessel, the observer does a vessel safety check. If the vessel does not meet all the safety requirements, or have a current US Coast Guard Safety Decal, then the observer must cancel the trip and issue the fishermen a notice stating that they can't fish again until they get Coast Guard safety decal.

On a multi-day trip, the fishermen must provide the observer with comparable accommodations and food as if they were a crew member. This usually entails sharing a two bunk cabin with a crewmember. On single day trips, no accommodations are necessary and the observer will provide his/her own food.

When the vessel lands, the observer electronically uploads trip data from his/her handheld computer via a wireless internet connection. The observer calls his/her AC and reports basic information about the trip. When ashore, the observer reviews the data logs for accuracy and completeness, then sends the logs and biological samples to the NMFS at Technology Park in Falmouth. The biological samples are used for fish population age studies. 

Communications is an important part of an observers life. Since observers work out of their residence and often are states away from their Area Coordinator and the NMFS Observer headquarters, observers must communicate via cell phone (provided by AIS) and email. One can expect to be on the phone with their AC, Data Editor or fishermen just about every day they are ashore. Because observers are so dispersed along the coast, email and the AIS website is an important means of communication.  

Equipment and Pay

AIS, Inc. supplies the observers with rain gear, gloves, and an immersion suit. All measuring boards, scales, baskets, knives, data logs and other sampling equipment are also supplied. Trainees are responsible for obtaining their own boots and warm clothing.

AIS, Inc. provides full-time employees with benefits including health, dental, and disability insurance, vacation, sick, and paid holidays. Observers are considered full-time observers if they average 12 sea days a month. 

Full-time employees are paid land hours to meet with captains, arrange trips and to review logs after trips and send them to Woods Hole.  Land hours are paid for communication with your AC, your data editor or other NMFS staff. The observer’s job is not a 40 hour/week job, but they can expect to do about 30 land hours a month along with their 12-15 seadays.

Travel is a component of observing. The number of boats and the amount of fishing varies dramatically from port to port and season to season. We place observers in the busiest ports, but every port has slow periods and we don't have observers in all the ports that need sampling. Traveling to other ports is needed to complete our NMFS seaday requirements and to ensure observers get their 12 seadays in. Observers in the Mid-Atlantic tend to do the most traveling. Observers in New England will do moderate traveling and Observers in New Bedford travel the least.


The accommodations, food, and weather for observers can vary from one extreme to the other. They may encounter rough seas, cold weather, or difficult working conditions for a number of days at sea.  Food can range from very good to something less than appetizing. It will be difficult to accommodate special diets on board. The lack of medical facilities on board makes it important that each observer be fit and in good health.

Observers will have to contend with the following at some time during their observer life:

    Heat in the summer, cold in the winter.
    Cigarette smoke. Some fishermen smoke.
    Diesel fumes.
    Rough seas. 10' seas are common, rarely +20' seas.
    Food can range from good to 'what is it?'
    Physical labor. Most observers say they didn't realize what a workout it is.
    Small, inshore boats have no heads (toilets). Observers would use a bucket.
    English. Depending on the port, some crews do not speak English. The captain usually can communicate.
    Seasickness. Everyone, including fisherman, get seasick sometime.

About 35% of our observers are women. Women on commercial fishing vessels are a relatively new event and fishermen are still adjusting. Many of our women observers say they are treated better than their male counterparts. Still, new observers may have concerns with being onboard a vessel with 5-6 men for days. We've had very few incidents with our women observers and none were serious. Federal laws prohibits any kind of harassment of observers and the laws are strictly enforced, so problems with fishermen are minimal and may involve snubbing the observer or an occasional complaint about regulations and nothing personal.

Pound Nets

Those who decide to apply for the NMFS Fisheries Observer Program should commit themselves to observing for a year. They may have to subordinate their social life to their observer life. Being at sea for 12-15 days a month then staying in contact with your AC, editor or fishermen the rest of the month, will restrict your social plans. Observers have to get their entertainment when they can.

Not every marine biologist is cut out for going to sea, so we only accept the best. There will be tough times working as an observer, but there is satisfaction in doing a tough job that directly helps the marine environment. Observers must be prepared, be flexible, and be willing to endure the tough times in order to enjoy the good times that come with good weather and good boats.  The person who treats observing as an adventure, tends to enjoy the job the most. 

Go to Observer Training

Back to Top

© 2005-present. All Rights Reserved. Contact the Webmaster