A team of people work for the Ministry of Fisheries (MFish) on board commercial fishing boats collecting scientific data and information about commercial fishing activities. These people are known as observers.
Observers travel on commercial fishing boats both in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and on the high seas, collecting scientific information on fish, monitoring by-catch, and gathering information on how well the ship obeys the New Zealand fishing rules.
What do observers do?
It’s not an easy job. Observers usually go out on a ship for between four and six weeks at a time, working 12-hour shifts each day. Sometimes two observers work together so that they can monitor the ship 24 hours a day. However, when they don’t need to do 24-hour monitoring experienced observers will go out alone.
The observers work alongside the crew, watching what is caught, collecting scientific information and samples, testing and providing data on how the fish is processed, and recording details of how the fishers try to avoid harming seabirds and marine mammals.
The scientific data that observers gather is used by research organisations, and other information, such as details about by-catch and how well the ship obeys the rules, is passed on to MFish and other interested government departments.
Observers are not enforcement officers. If they think a ship is disobeying the New Zealand fishing rules, they can report it to fishery officers, and, sometimes, they might have to act as witnesses in court cases.
Although some ships don’t want to have observers on board, generally the observers are welcomed by the fishing industry because the work they do helps make sure that our fisheries remain healthy and sustainable.
Who wants to be an observer?
People from all walks of life apply to be observers.
A lot of interest comes from university graduates, particularly those who are interested in marine biology.
But observers have also been teachers, bricklayers, and business people. They all want a new and interesting lifestyle.
One of the attractions is a good daily pay rate. Observers can earn up to $290 per day, depending on what they have to do and their level of experience – and accommodation and food come free with the job!
Caroline’s day as an observer
Let’s hear about one observer’s life on board the boats.
“At the moment, I am working on board a small commercial trawler, not far offshore from New Zealand. The vessel is owned by a New Zealand company, and all of the crew (there are just six of them) are Kiwis like me.
This is very different from my last assignment, when I was on board a large Ukrainian-owned vessel, fishing for squid in the Southern Ocean near the Auckland Islands. That boat had a crew of nearly 80 people, many of whom could not speak English.
Each day I get up at 5.30 a.m. to prepare for my 12-hour shift. I have breakfast with the crew and am ready to start work at 6 a.m. My first job of the day is to monitor the catch as it’s brought on board.
After taking a sample of the catch, I start collecting the scientific information we need. I weigh and measure the fish and check whether they are male or female. Then I take a few of the fish and remove their otoliths to take back to the scientists on shore so that they can find out how old the fish are.
During the day, I estimate how many seabirds are in the area and record any marine mammals that we see. In the afternoon, it’s time to get the paperwork out of the way. By the time the end of my shift rolls around at 6 p.m., I’m pretty tired and very hungry!
We’ve been lucky on this trip; we’ve had mostly calm seas. Sometimes though, it can get very rough, and even the most experienced fishers can get seasick when it’s like that!
Although it can be difficult sometimes, I really enjoy my job. It’s full of variety and challenges, and it’s very satisfying to know that the work I do is helping to ensure that our fisheries are healthy and sustainable.”