At Sea Monitor Overview

A.I.S. posts announcements for at-sea monitor (ASM) training sessions and accepts applications. We interview the most qualified candidates and select the best for training. Trainees are A.I.S. employees, trained and certified by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to become ASMs qualified to observe in the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program.

The monitor’s job duties are to accompany commercial fishing vessels on fishing trips and record information about the boat, gear, species caught and discarded, and to obtain fish length frequencies. At-sea monitors also record incidental takes of marine mammals, sea turtles, or sea birds. Trips may be from one day to about fourteen days in length, depending on the port and fishery.

Home Ports
When a candidate is offered a position, they are assigned a home port from Maine to New Jersey. In general, we try to match a home port assignment to where the trainee would prefer to be. However, our sea day schedule determines how many monitors we need in a port and which ports are assigned monitors. ASMs are assigned an Area Coordinator as a supervisor based on location. Depending on the port, the monitor can expect short trips, multi-day trips, or a mixture.

Monitors work from their residence in their home port. They report directly to their Area Coordinator, who takes the new monitors on a tour of the port and shows them where the vessels are located. During the port tour, the new monitors are introduced to some of the local captains that they will eventually sail with. The Area Coordinator will help new ASMs arrange some of their initial trips. Then, it becomes the monitor’s duty to coordinate trips on their own. They can expect to travel to other ports when fishing is slow and are required to complete an average of 12 sea days or more per month in order to be considered full-time and eligible for benefits.

Sea Days
Monitors work whenever the captain decides the conditions are right to go fishing, which includes weekends and holidays. If monitors are requested to travel to a different port in order to meet these assignments, A.I.S. pays for all travel and lodging expenses within the program’s reimbursement parameters. Therefore, monitors must have their own transportation and must be able to travel on short notice. Being flexible is key to being a successful monitor.

Onboard Vessels
The monitors work alone on the fishing vessel. Before boarding the vessel, a safety check is conducted. If the vessel does not meet all the safety requirements, or have a current US Coast Guard Safety Decal, the monitor must not deploy on the trip and then must issue the fishermen a notice stating that they can’t fish again until they obtain a Coast Guard Safety Decal.

On a multi-day trip, the fishermen must provide the monitor with comparable accommodations and food as if they were a crew member. This usually entails sharing a cabin with other crew members. On single day trips, no accommodations are necessary and the monitor provides his/her own food.

When the vessel lands, data are uploaded electronically utilizing a handheld computer or laptop. When ashore, the monitor reviews the data logs for accuracy and completeness, then sends the logs and any samples to the Northeast Science Center Fisheries Sampling Branch at Technology Park in Falmouth, MA.

Communication is an essential job function of being a monitor. Since ASMs work out of their residence and often are states away from their Area Coordinator and the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program Training Center, they must communicate via a company provided cell phone and email. One can expect to be on the phone with their Area Coordinator, Data Editor or fishermen just about every day they are ashore. Because monitors are so dispersed along the coast, email and the A.I.S. website are important means of communication.

Equipment and Pay
All required sampling equipment and gear will be supplied. Monitors are responsible for obtaining their own boots and warm clothing.

To be considered full time, monitors must average 12 sea days per month. A.I.S. provides full-time employees with benefits including health, dental, and disability insurance, vacation, sick pay, and paid holidays. Full-time employees are paid land hours to meet with captains, arrange trips and to prepare and review data after trips and send them to the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program Training Center. Land hours can also be earned for communication with your Area Coordinator, your data editor or other NMFS staff. The monitor’s job is not a 40 hour/week job, but they can expect to do about 30 land hours a month along with their 12-15 sea days.

Travel is a component of monitoring. The number of boats and the amount of fishing varies dramatically from port to port and season to season. We place monitors in the busiest ports, but every port has slow periods and we don’t always have monitors based in all the ports that need them. Traveling to other ports is necessary to complete our sea day requirements and to ensure monitors complete their 12 sea days a month. Monitors in the Mid-Atlantic tend to do the most traveling, while those in New England will do moderate traveling. Observers and monitors are compensated for their time and mileage outside of their normal commute.

The accommodations, food, and weather can vary from one extreme to another. ASMs may encounter rough seas, cold weather, or difficult working conditions for extended periods of time. Food can range from very good to something less than appetizing; it will be difficult to accommodate special diets on board. The lack of medical facilities on board makes it important that each monitor be fit and in good health.

Monitors will have to contend with the following at some time during their career:

  • Heat in the summer, cold in the winter
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Diesel fumes
  • Rough seas. 10′ seas are common, rarely +20′ seas
  • Food can range from good to ‘what is it?’
  • Physical labor. Most monitors say they didn’t realize what a workout it is.
  • Small, inshore boats have no heads (toilets). Monitors would use a bucket.
  • Language. Depending on the port, some crews do not speak English. The captain usually can communicate.
  • Seasickness. Everyone, including fishermen, gets seasick sometime.

About 30% of our ASMs are women. Many of them say they are treated better than their male counterparts. Still, new female monitors may have concerns with being onboard a vessel with 5-6 men for days at a time. Federal laws prohibit any kind of harassment of any monitors and are strictly enforced, so problems with fishermen are minimal. Fishermen often complain about management and regulations they do not agree with and are not afraid to voice these opinions to monitors while onboard their vessels.

Those who decide to apply for the NMFS At-Sea Monitor Program should commit themselves to the program for a year. As flexibility is essential to success in these positions, many monitors and observers find they have to put their social life on the back burner. Being at sea for 12-15 days a month then staying in contact with your Coordinator, editor or fishermen the rest of the month, will restrict your social plans.

Not every marine biologist is cut out for going to sea, so we only accept the most highly qualified candidates. There will be tough times working in these positions, but there is satisfaction in doing a tough job that directly helps the marine environment. Monitors must be prepared, be flexible, and be willing to endure the tough times in order to enjoy the good times that come with good weather and good boats. The person who treats monitoring as an adventure, tends to enjoy the job the most.