Domestic Observer Jobs

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) requires domestic observers on many of Alaska’s fishing vessels.

Domestic observers are needed to collect fish-catch data which is analyzed to help government fishery managers estimate fish populations and catch numbers needed to set the next season’s catch limits. A domestic observer’s duties include collecting, recording, and reporting data about fish size and weight, catch volumes, and by-catch (fish, birds, and marine mammals not intended for capture).

Contractors in Washington and Alaska interview and hire domestic observers, giving preference to college graduates with degrees in biology and some coursework in marine biology or a related field; one of our contacts even recommended coursework in statistics.

Interested applicants usually submit a resume and college transcripts. Qualified applicants complete a three-week course (often in Seattle), which teaches everything from how to deal with government regulations and data reporting forms to lab work and species identification. At the end of the course you’re given a test on what you’ve learned and the NMFS certifies you as an official observer.

Assignments vary tremendously. You might work on a 40-foot seiner or a 400-foot floating processor. Domestic observer Diane Wright describes her last work assignment:

“Last trip I was on a pot boat fishing for cod. There were only two rooms with three bunks in each cabin. I like the smaller boats, though, because it feels like a family atmosphere and I feel like part of a team. As a domestic observer I wasn’t expected to participate in any of the fishing or cooking, but I usually helped out anyway and cooked my own food most of the time, which on a larger boat I almost never do. I don’t have to keep the same long hours as the fishermen, but some boats do require a little more deck time, especially longliners and pot boats like this one.”

Working as a government employee on a small private fishing vessel requires a certain amount of tact, as Diane relates:

“This job is as much a people job as it is a science job. You’re working in very close proximity to other people 24 hours a day, and if you can’t handle personal relationships it can make you feel isolated and miserable. You have to learn diplomacy and have some people skills if you want to have a good time. Generally, most of the fishermen are pretty nice and accommodating. There are always a few pain-in-the-necks, but I’ve also made a lot of friendships on board.”

There is a maximum time allowed for an observer to be on a ship before returning for debriefing in Seattle, i.e., three months. Many observers go out for several assignments, and a lot of them are graduate students who can make a lot of money in a short amount of time without any expenses at all. Most observers make about $4,000 per month ($130-150 per day) and don’t have to pay for food or housing while at sea, so opportunities to spend money are extremely limited. As one observer put it:

“It’s not like there’s a floating shopping mall out there or anything .”

Contractors authorized to recruit domestic observers for the National Marine Fisheries Service’s domestic observer program are listed here.

For more information on domestic observers, contact:

National Marine Fisheries Service
Federal Building
709 W 9th Street
P.O. Box 21668
Juneau, AK 99802-1668
Phone: (907) 586-7221

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