A day in the life of a scientific fisheries observer

24th January 2018

This month, SETFIA caught up with an AFMA observer David Schubert, aka ‘Observer Dave’, to get an idea of what it is like to be a fisheries observer. David has been an AFMA seagoing observer for 10 years and is well placed to share his insights, highlights and challenges of the job.

How did you become an observer?

I studied a Bachelor of Applied Science in Fisheries at the Australian Maritime College. In 2007 I applied for a scientific observer position, which started my career in the seafood industry.

Why did you choose to become an observer?

I’m a hands-on person with a passion for the environment and a sustainable fishing industry. I am keen to work with industry, contributing to the evolution of the trawl industry, particularly with regards to reducing interactions with Threatened, Endangered and Protected (TEP) species and minimising bycatch.

What does a typical day in the life of an observer look like in the South East Trawl (SET) Fishery?

Whether I am on a Danish seiner for the day doing eight shots back-to-back or working a 10-day stint on an otter-board trawler, my data collection requirements are very similar in the SET fishery.

Each time the net is hauled onto the deck of the fishing boat, observers are required to undertake sampling and data collection. My regular observer duties focus on the collection of biological data including;

·         Completing catch compositions – I sort and record all species of fish landed in each shot and estimate the weights of all the species that are retained and discarded. This data contributes to AFMA’s ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and assists in setting total allowable catches (TACs) by estimating discards, because discards are deducted from quotas before they are set.

·         Collect length frequencies from required species – Once the catch has been spilled on the deck of the boat, I collect species to measure.  By continually measuring the length of quota species, we can understand more about stock recruitments (numbers of young fish), growth and what age classes are currently being caught in the fishery.

·         Otolith (fish ear bones) collection – Otoliths  are used by scientists to determine the age of the fish species by counting seasonal rings, similar to the growth rings  of a tree. Otoliths provide information on the age structure of the catch.  This data can be used to see what effects fishing is having, to estimate natural mortality and to understand growth.  All these data flows into stock assessments that are used to set quotas. AFMA operates a data plan that outlines otolith collection targets required by species, method, areas and season. I generally try to collect 10 to 25 pairs of otoliths per shot depending on catches and weather conditions.

·         Wildlife abundance and interaction data with TEP species and species of interest – I conduct seabird abundance counts during each shot. Also, if there is an interaction with a TEP species, I will sample and document the species and conditions surrounding the interaction event.  AFMA compares the interaction rate when an observer is on board and when there is no observer, to understand the accuracy of industry reporting.

Other general data that I collect includes daily log information, vessel and gear details, and other shot specific information.

What do you like about being an observer?

The beauty of the office! Whether I am on the first day of a trip, or the 80th, when I head out on deck, I get to experience the diverse nature of our marine ecosystem, up close and personal. Whether it’s rough as guts, or flat as a tack, every day is unique out there.

What are some of the challenges of being an observer?

As much as I enjoy it, being an observer involves a lot of time away from home, often for weeks at a time, in seas and oceans where internet and phone coverage is patchy at best, and often non-existent. This has meant missing out on many of my children’s life milestones, friends, family and sport.

Highlights for you so far?

There have been many highlights for me. From a fishery point of view, the recent changes in seabird mitigation with the introduction of ‘bird bafflers’ (lines with streamers hung above the trawl wires to keep the seabirds away) in the SET and Great Australian Bight Fisheries have been a highlight. I worked with industry to play a role in the transition to bafflers, which has reduced seabird interactions by up to 96 per cent. Industry and AFMA should be congratulated for such a substantial reduction.

On a more personal note, I have also enjoyed all of the people and personalities I have met over the past 10 years. I think continual industry engagement is key in AFMA and industry moving forward together. I’m excited about AFMA expanding its office in Lakes Entrance in 2018, as we will now have more opportunities to work with industry, and to continue to evolve our fisheries guided by best practice.