< Back to Northeast Dashboard

Did at-sea observer coverage change, influencing data quality?

Indicator: Observer Coverage

Short Answer: Yes. Observer coverage increased with the start of the catch share program, although it then declined.

Key Findings

  • Observer coverage was greater during the catch share program, but it declined almost every year after the beginning of the program.
  • Observer coverage targets were lower than those in the West Coast groundfish fishery.
  • Precisely quantifying changes in observer coverage was challenging because measures of coverage during different management regimes used distinct metrics.

Interactive Chart


 This indicator shows the percentage of fishing vessels’ days-at-sea monitored by third-party, onboard observers. 


Baseline: Before Catch Share Program

The Northeast Fishery Observer Program (NEFOP) placed at-sea observers on vessels participating in the Northeast multispecies fishery to collect data needed for managing the fishery. The multispecies fishery was one of several fisheries observed under this program. Because vessels could fish on multiple species covered under different management plans on any individual trip, precise levels of observer coverage for tows targeting stocks in the multispecies large mesh fishery are not known. For the entire New England region, the best estimates from the Northeast Fishery Observer Program suggest that observers covered 3 to 21 percent of vessels’ days at sea. From 2006 to 2009, observer coverage was fairly consistent around 12 to 17 percent. 

During Catch Share Program

With implementation of the catch share program in 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) also implemented the At-Sea Monitoring (ASM) Program to provide additional observer coverage for vessels in the catch share program. Largely due to the additional coverage offered by the ASM, total observer coverage sharply increased in 2010: 32 percent of trips were covered in 2010. This level of coverage was not sustained, however. Coverage declined in most of the subsequent six years, reaching a low of 11 percent in the 2016 fishing year. Costs of the observer program have failed to be offset by the predicted recovery of valuable overfished stocks (Cost of Fishery Management: Private). Again, precise levels of observer coverage for the tows targeting stocks in the multispecies large mesh fishery are not known. The observer coverage levels have generally been too low to provide the target precision for estimates of discard rates for many groundfish stocks (Discards).

Data Gaps and Limitations

The quality of data available for managing the fishery depends on many factors, including catch-accounting, speed at which data become available, and the degree of detail of data. Here we assessed a relatively simple, but important, metric of data quality: the fraction of days-at-sea (DAS) that had onboard observers to monitor the catch.

Data needed to independently estimate coverage levels (fractional DAS observer coverage) were not available for all time periods. The chief limitation was the lack of matching between how publications and reports summarized total fleet DAS and observed DAS. Total fleet DAS were listed for the large-mesh groundfish fishery, while the observed days-at-sea was for the entire groundfish trawl fishery. Observed DAS were not available for the entirety of the 2012 fishing year and were therefore omitted from analysis. NOAA-generated estimates of observer coverage aggregated fleets together, and the best match for our analysis was the aggregated groundfish-sink gillnet fisheries. Fishing effort for the sink anchor drift gillnet fishery appeared to be approximately one-quarter to one-third that for all otter trawls, making the combined fleet percentages a reasonable proxy for observer coverage in the multispecies groundfish fishery.

Information Sources

Murphy T, Kitts A, Records D, Demarest C, McPherson M, Walden J, Caless D, Bing-Sawyer E, Steinback S, Olson J. 2012. 2011 Final Report on the Performance of the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery ( 2011-April 2012). Available online: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/publications/crd/crd1230/

National Observer Program annual reports (2005-2012). Data included percent observer coverage for the New England groundfish trawl and sink gillnet fisheries. Available online: http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/observer-home/reports/nopannualreports/index

Northeast Fisheries Observer Program Incidental Take reports (2002-2012). Data included observed sea days for all bottom trawls. Available online: http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/fsb/take_reports/nefop.html

Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office Allocation Management System database (2002-2009). Data included days-at-sea. Available online: http://www.nero.noaa.gov/ro/fso/das.htm 

GARFO. 2018. Summary of Analysis Conducted to Determine At-Sea Monitoring Requirements for Multispecies Sectors FY2018. Available online: https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/ro/fso/reports/Sectors/ASM/FY2018_Multispecies_Sector_ASM_Requirements_Summary.pdf


Updated: July 2018

© 2018 MRAG Americas, Inc. All Rights Reserved.