Observer Coverage


Ecological | Economic | Social | Governance

Has quality of fishery data changed with changes in observer coverage?

Indicator: Observer Coverage

This indicator measures the proportion of fishing activity that is observed by third-party individuals on fishing vessels.


Proper implementation of a catch share program requires an accurate accounting of all catches. As a result, an enhanced monitoring system, often one that includes third-party onboard observers, is usually implemented as part of a catch share program. In this case, the Pacific Fishery Management Council mandated that observers be present on 100 percent of trips under the catch share program. This target represents a fivefold increase in observer coverage compared to the baseline period.

Baseline Years: Prior to Catch Share Program

Onboard observer coverage of the limited entry trawl fishery ranged from 16 percent to 29 percent before catch shares were implemented. Onboard observers provide reliable estimates of discards and total catches for all species captured in the gear. They also provide data regarding catches of non-target species that are discarded. Prior to the Shorebased IFQ program, the Council reported considerable delays in the delivery of data, which resulted in catch-by-species information remaining unavailable for more than a year after the fishing season ended.

Catch Share Program

With implementation of the Shorebased IFQ Program, observer coverage increased to near 100 percent. Full observer coverage is a core element of the program’s accountability. All vessels are required to carry at-sea observers for total catch verification (100 percent of the groundfish IFQ species in each haul). Observers are also required to monitor the sorting, weighing, and discarding of catch. Given the mandate for observer coverage through Amendments 20 and 21 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish FMP (History of the Fishery), we do not expect there to be changes in the observer coverage levels going forward. However, with the shift to an industry-funded program (Cost of Fishery Management: Private), there may be unanticipated design implications.

Data Gaps and Limitations

In 2011 and 2012, observer coverage was probably slightly less than the reported 100 percent because of unavoidable breaks in coverage. Moreover, the comparison between baseline and catch share periods may be confounded by differences in participation. That is, we are comparing the observer coverage between the limited-entry trawl vessels and a subset of those vessels that are in the catch share program.

Information Sources

Data for 2002–2010 from Annual West Coast Observer Program reports. Available online:   

NMFS. 2012. National Observer Program Annual Report – FY 2011, NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/SPO-123, 36 p. Available online:

NMFS. 2013. National Observer Program Annual Report – FY 2012, NOAA Tech. Memo. NMFS F/SPO-127, 38 p. Available online:

PFMC. 2010. Rationalization of the Pacific Coast Groundfish Limited Entry Trawl Fishery; Final Environmental Impact Statement Including Regulatory Impact Review and Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis.

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Observer Coverage (pdf) – January 2015 (minor editorial revisions)

Archive of previous versions:

Observer Coverage (pdf) – September 2013 (initial release)

Updated: January 30, 2015