I have worked in fisheries for over 15 years, starting out as a fisheries observer in the Southern Ocean in 2001, on board longline and trawl vessels. Most of those trips were conducted during the frigid Antarctic winters, a time when smart people warn you to stay out of the area. The fisheries that I worked with were heavily monitored to ensure their compliance with a variety of conservation and management measures, and it was my responsibility to collect substantial amounts of data on vessel operations and catches to allow for analyses to determine the status of fish populations in the area. More recently, my work took me to tropical climates and out at sea onboard Indonesian one-by-one tuna vessels. Why? To analyse fishing operations in order to design a sampling protocol for observers.
Why are fisheries observers so important?
Fishery observers are a key component in documenting fishing activities and catches that allows for a more comprehensive management of resources. For IPNLF, the fisheries observers deployed on the pole-and-line tuna vessels have a very important, additional role. It is also their remit to ensure that appropriate data is collected to demonstrate that the fishery meets the Marine Stewardship Council standard for environmental sustainability, thereby enabling Indonesia’s one-by-one products to merit the sought-after blue tick. So, over the past few months, I have been working collaboratively with the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries (MMAF), Asosiasi Perikanan Pole & Line dan Handline Indonesia (AP2HI), Masyarakat dan Perikanan Indonesia (MDPI) and, of course, the fishers to strengthen and implement protocols for observers.
What are the key elements of a good onboard observer programme and protocol?
Experience has taught me that a good observer programme for tuna fisheries requires the following: robust and well-researched protocols; effective logistical coordination; strong stakeholder support; and proper training of the people who go out to sea to collect the data, the observers. In a country like Indonesia, it is important to be mindful of the factors that make all of these activities more complex. For example, the geographic spread of fisheries across Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, the diversity of gears used to catch tuna, the variety of pole-and-line vessel sizes, the limited working and resting space onboard some of the vessels, the amounts of tuna caught, as well as the use of baitfish. All of these issues need to be considered when implementing an observer programme, but before we could think about implementation we first needed to ensure we provided the right guidance…
Developing the protocols
To ensure the observer protocols were fit for purpose, I joined a series of pole-and-line fishing trips in Indonesia, on behalf of IPNLF. The aim was to make certain that the protocols would enable fishery observers to collect the most relevant data in the most efficient way. The insights I gained during this development stage and the support I received from the fishers themselves was vital. The fishers were a great source of knowledge on all aspects of the fishery, but they were particularly helpful in identifying the multitude of baitfish species. As well as having a keen eye, they are very knowledgeable about the species, and that proved critical in determining how baitfish were to be sampled in a comprehensive manner.
Observing fisheries is a demanding job, and pole-and-line fleets are not an exception, particularly as data needs to be collected on a wide range of fishery aspects. Observers are required to sample catches at sea in order to determine total catch-composition by species, as well as bait composition, total baitfish caught and used, fishing effort and any interactions with endangered, threatened and protected (ETP) species. To fulfil these tasks, observers need to be proficient in species identification, sampling techniques, taking accurate measurements and completing observation forms. In addition, it is important that observers are sensitive to behaviours onboard vessels and any changes in operational activities.
To bring the MMAF observers up to speed with the new protocols, a training workshop was coordinated and hosted in Bitung, north Sulawesi, in early August. Guided by IPNLF’s Knowledge Sharing Guidelines, 13 government fisheries observers joined me and personnel from AP2HI and MMAF for a session specifically designed to help observers understand their role onboard vessels. During the two-day workshop, we talked at length about the various species of tuna that are caught in the area, how to sample the catch, as well as how to identify and sample the bait that is brought on board from the bagans or liftnet platforms that catch it. We also discussed fisheries-specific terminology and the importance that this understanding has to data collection.
Since the training session, the observers have been putting the protocols into practice at sea, trialling them on six vessels. They are now collecting data that will, amongst other things, support the pole-and-line fishery in its journey towards MSC certification. By having robust data in place, these fisheries can prove their environmental sustainability. Following the success of the Bitung workshop, IPNLF hosted a further workshop in Maumere, Indonesia, to train additional observers. For all of this work, we are thankful to our donors, the Walton Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and our Member, Fish Tales, for their ongoing support of this project. We also would like to thank MMAF for their valued support and partnership.