The International scheme for scientific observation provides highly valuable data for management

, CCAMLR Secretariat

Photo by Anthony Miller, Australia

The International scheme for scientific observation provides highly valuable data for management

There were scientific observers on some vessels fishing within the CCAMLR-managed area even before the CAMLR Convention entered into force in 1982, with many nations tasking scientific observers to undertake specific scientific projects. For example, observers on Polish vessels provided some of the first biomass indices for mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari). Indeed, much of the marine scientific research presented in the early days of CCAMLR used data collected by scientific observers as well as data collected by independent research programs.

CCAMLR recognised that continuing to obtain high-quality independent scientific data from fishing vessels was essential to monitor both fishing-based activities and non-target catch impacts, and in the late 1980s it developed a program which enables the deployment of international scientific observers on fishing vessels – the CCAMLR Scheme of International Scientific Observation (SISO).  Under SISO the nationality of the scientific observer is not the same as the Flag State of the vessel upon which they are deployed. This was considered a vital element to ensure the success of the scheme, as observers can operate independently of the vessel upon which they are stationed.

Safely carrying a toothfish for tagging. Photo: NIWA, New Zealand

SISO was adopted by the Commission in 1992, has been amended several times over the years,  and is the second-oldest international scientific observer program in the world after the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency observer program which began in 1986. It is one of the most important sources of scientific information utilised by the CCAMLR Scientific Committee and is essential for assessing the impact of fishing on the ecosystem, including the status of target populations as well as those of related and dependent species. The scheme also plays a crucial role in developing approaches to reducing the impact of fishing on certain species by collecting data on the effectiveness of seabird and marine mammal mortality mitigation measures.

Initially the scheme was prioritised to deploy observers in the finfish fisheries of mackerel icefish and Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and the crab (Paralomis spp.) pot fishery which briefly operated in the 1990s, and it became mandatory to carry an observer on all finfish vessels in 1995. In some exploratory fisheries for toothfish, two observers are required, one of which should be international and another may be a nationally assigned observer.

Tagging applicator and tags on a toothfish. Photo: NIWA, New Zealand

In the 1990s international scientific observers were only put on krill vessels occasionally, but as CCAMLR’s krill fishery has become larger, mandatory scientific observer coverage in this fishery has steadily increased. As of 2020 CCAMLR requires 100% observer coverage of all fishing vessels operating within the Convention Area.

A day in the life of a CCAMLR SISO observer does not lack for tasks to be undertaken! Observers generally work 12-hour shifts and in that time are expected to undertake sampling and a variety of morphometric measurements of both target and non-target species, observe hauling operations and, on longline vessels, account for any signs of depredation by mammals, such as killer whales or sperm whales. Depredation occurs when whales eat fish that are caught on the longline before they can be brought on board the vessel, which may impact the estimate of the total number of fish that were caught.

Separating krill for measuring and sexing. Photo: Anthony Miller, Australia

Observers must also take note of any fish or krill being lost back to the sea or being discarded, undertake seabird observations to quantify any interactions with fishing gear, assist with the tagging of toothfish or other fish, and monitor the performance of mitigation measures to reduce seabird and marine mammal interactions with fishing vessels.

All this is done following the standardised procedures agreed by CCAMLR in the Observer Manual, which ensures that all measurements and observations are standardised across observer programs. Under the SISO, scientific observers are afforded the status of ships officers, assuring some level of additional comfort and access to facilities to support their scientific work. Many scientific observers have contributed to scientific experiments at sea, for instance working to determine the best way to tag a fish or minimise the chances of birds being caught on longlines, which they do in addition to their observer duties.

Seals swimming around a krill trawl net. Photo: Anthony Miller, Australia

It is a very physically demanding job. Safely carrying toothfish weighing up to 100 kg from an open exposed hauling bay, potentially in subzero temperatures on a slippery heaving deck (thanks to a five-meter swell) is not a job for the faint of heart! Observer deployments are also lengthy given the remote location of CCAMLR fisheries. At a minimum an observer deployment typically lasts two months given the transit time vessels face to access many of CCAMLR’s fisheries. However, some deployments in the CCAMLR krill fisheries have lasted for nine months, as unlike finfish vessels, krill vessels tranship both catch and fuel at sea, greatly increasing their endurance. The rewards, though, are those occasional days when the sea and the sky are clear, and when something unusual is caught such as a colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni).

Colossal squid caught in the Ross Sea. Photo: Joseph Chapman, United Kingdom