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Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program

A Day in the Life

A Day in the Life of an Observer in the Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program
Commercial fishery management relies on obtaining accurate catch data to make proper management decisions in order to maintain a sustainable fishery. The Commercial Shark Fishery Observer Program (CSFOP) at the Florida Museum of Natural History does exactly that, putting observers on commercial longline shark fishing vessels. Founded in 1994, the CSFOP was originally a voluntary program in which observers would gain permission from captains to ride along on shark fishing trips and collect biological data. In January 2002 the program became mandatory. Boats randomly selected for the program are now required to report when they are going fishing and must bring an observer along on their trips when assigned. This has led to an increase in observer coverage of the fishery from two to four percent, with the data collected being used as the cornerstone of current management decisions. It is extremely important to have observers on board rather than conducting dock surveys due to the nature of the shark fishery. Sharks that are landed are processed at sea in a way that makes it very difficult to positively identify the species after they have been carcassed. Many small coastal sharks caught are used for bait on future sets, discarded or released and are not accurately accounted for back at the dock. This is also true for bycatch that is not landed for commercial sale. The data collected from the observer accurately depicts what occurs during a shark fishing trip. This includes locality, set structure, environmental factors, catch composition and bycatch composition.
observer boat
Commercial shark fishing vessel
Boats selected for the program must be in contact with the Observer Coordinator 48 hours prior to each fishing trip. The Observer Coordinator will then decide whether an observer will be sent along. When the coordinator decides that an observer will be sent they will notify the owner of the boat and get in contact with the observer. The observer will then be informed of what vessel they will be going on and whom they need to contact to make the proper arrangements. They will then call the captain or owner, who in many cases is the same person, find out exactly when they plan on leaving and directions to the dock. It is then the observer's responsibility to arrive at the dock before the agreed upon departure time. This ensures that the observer will have plenty of time to transport their gear onto the boat and complete their safety checklist without hindering the schedule of the captain and crew.
Once the boat is located and the observer has met the captain, the boat will be inspected for safety. This is mainly done through the completion of a safety checklist. It is very important that the observer completes the checklist since many of the boats are new to the program and have never had an observer on board. The first thing the observer looks for is the Coast Guard Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Examination Decal. This should be located on the wheelhouse window on the starboard side of the boat. The tag should be marked on the date it was issued and is valid for two years after that date. If the tag is expired or missing the observer should not go out on the vessel and should report to the coordinator. If the tag is valid, its serial number and date of issuance should be recorded on the checklist. Each boat should have a liferaft with a capacity greater than or equal to the number of people that will be on the boat. The same is true for the number of lifejackets on board.
Commercial Fishing Vessel Safety Examination Decal
The vessel should also have a functioning EPIRB, GPS/Loran system, radio, flares and emergency alarms. Fishing charts and emergency instructions should be on board and a throwable flotation device and fire extinguishers should be readily available. The observer should note other obvious safety problems, such as structural integrity, and should never get aboard a boat that they feel is unsafe.
Observers take gear aboard to collect important shark fishery data
The gear that the observer takes on board is crucial to the data collection process. In order to record data, pencils, data sheets, meter sticks, thermometers and a clipboard are brought along to obtain the most basic and important catch data. Sample bottles, plastic bags and waterproof paper tags are brought along in order to collect reproductive, vertebral, DNA and jaw samples. Tools that will aid the observer in collecting data as conveniently and safely as possible, such as knives, meat hooks and gloves, are contained in a plastic toolbox where they can be easily stored and accessed. Rain gear and boots are brought to provide protection from the elements as well as the sharks.
shark tagging
Tagging a shark
NMFS dart tags (also known as "M" tags) and a tagging pole are used to tag any shark released in order to assist in the NMFS Cooperative Shark Tagging Program. De-hookers are also brought on board for the benefit of fishermen and sharks. If used properly the de-hooker is an effective way of removing sharks that are going to be released without losing the fishermen's gear in the process. This allows fishermen to regain their hooks, instead of cutting the line, and lessen their expenses.

It also allows released sharks to go back into the water free of any fishing gear. The observer is also equipped with a type 1 personal floatation device, whistle, strobe light and mini EPIRB in case they need to abandon ship.
Dinner time!
Dinner time!
Extra clothes, personal items, a bedroll, sleeping bag and pillow are also important to have since the observer will be spending several days at sea and may have to sleep on the floor due to a lack of bunks.

Food is provided for the observer by the fishermen but snacks or any food brought aboard for dietary reasons is more than welcome. Dinners are mainly meat and potato style dishes, sandwiches for lunch and breakfast snacks or even bacon and eggs in the morning. Each observer has a cooler to transport samples from the boat to the lab but it is not taken on the boat.

After the boat has proved to be seaworthy and the gear has been brought aboard, the boat will leave the dock marking the beginning of the trip. The boat will then head to the area where they plan to set their gear overnight. On the way out is a good time for the observer to talk to the captain and crew about gear storage, sleeping arrangements, and what the observer needs to do so that a system which benefits the fishermen and observer can be established. Shark fishing vessels are small; generally ranging from 35 to 45 feet in length, and space is at a premium. They are designed for working and many times lack amenities such as a head or shower. For the most part the observer is seen as a hindrance since the data collection tends to slow down operations from their normal pace. Good communication between the observer, captain and crew will make everyone's jobs easier and avoid any conflict.
Hydraulic spool
Hydraulic spool
Each boat is unique in their techniques of fishing but longline vessels are basically the same throughout the fishery. All longline boats are equipped with a hydraulic spool that contains the mainline. The mainline is either monofilament or stainless steel cable and is what the ganglions are attached to and removed from. The ganglions are made up of three main parts, the clip, another monofilament line and the hook. The length of the monofiliment line of the ganglion can vary from six to twelve feet in length and the hooks can vary in type and size. In the shark fishery most fish with circle hooks, opposed to J hooks, and use monofilament mainlines instead of cable.

The ganglions are usually hanging in an area of the boat where they are out of the way but easily accessible when it is time to set the line.
Hooks hanging
Hooks hanging
It is the observer's responsibility to record the number, size and type of hooks that are in the water on each set.

The most effective way of doing this is to count all of the hooks on board before the set is made. Once the set is finished the remaining hooks on deck can be counted and number of hooks on the line can be found. The best way to find out the size of the hooks being used is to ask the captain. The same is true for hook type although it is fairly easy to differentiate between circle hooks and J hooks.

Most shark fishers will make only one set per day. They tend to set the line at night and then haul it back in the morning. Before each set, fishermen need to cut bait in order to set the line. This entails cutting whatever they are using for bait to fit the hooks on the ganglions. Many will buy bait back at the dock for their entire trip. If not, the fishermen need to catch their bait before they can make a set. Bait is caught during the day by either trolling or making a bait set.
cut bait
Cut bait
line set Setting the line
Bait sets generally are made during the day and target small coastal sharks to use as bait for the night set. If the bait set is targeting sharks, the observer is required to collect data from that set. Examples of bait used are little tunny, bluefish, mullet, shark, flounder, stingray and other bycatch that have no commercial value.

Besides bait sets, fishermen will sometimes set for other commercially viable species of fish, such as tilefish, to supplement their trip during the down time between shark sets. Others will just take the time between sets to relax.
Bycatch includes many species of fish
When the boat has reached the fishing grounds, bait has been cut and night has fallen, the fishermen are ready to begin setting their line. A bottom longline set will begin by attaching a float ball or high flyer onto the mainline and running it off the stern of the boat. These floats mark the beginning of the line. The mainline will be released as the boat steams forward throughout the entire set. When the amount of mainline released is greater than or equal to the depth of the water, a set of weights are attached to the mainline. These weights keep the mainline anchored at the bottom. The baited ganglions are then attached to the mainline. At the beginning of each set, the observer needs to record location (GPS position), time the first hook was put in, water depth, air temperature and surface water temperature. The amount of time needed to set the gear varies according to how many miles of mainline are put out and how many hooks are being used. Generally it takes between one and two hours to set the line. Sets usually range from seven to ten miles of mainline and 600 to 800 hooks. When the appropriate number of hooks have been attached (which is usually all of the ganglions on board) another set of weights are attached to the mainline. Mainline is again released at a greater or equal length than the depth of the water and a float ball or high flyer is attached. The mainline is then cut so that the line in the water is separated from the line remaining on the spool. At the end of the set the observer records the new location, time, depth and temperatures.

Bottom water temperature data is obtained by a temperature recording device.
temp logger
Temperature logger being deployed
The observer should give this to the fisherman setting the gear before the set begins and it should be attached to the mainline between the first and last set of weights.

This assures that the temperature recorded is actually the bottom temperature. After the mainline has been detached from the spool the boat will pull away from the line and either anchor up or just float for the remainder of the night. Dinner will be eaten if it hasn't been before the set. The line will be allowed to soak overnight while everyone on the boat sleeps.

In the morning the captain will usually be the first one up and will start the boat engine. The rumble of the engine is more than enough noise to wake the rest of the crew and the observer. After breakfast the captain will drive the boat over to one end of the line. The high flyer or float ball will be retrieved and disconnected from the mainline. This is usually done towards the stern of the boat on one of the sides. The mainline from the water will then be reconnected to the mainline remaining on the spool, allowing the spool to haul back the line. The line will be retrieved from the water and the weights will be removed from the line. At this time the observer will record the time of the first hook out, air temperature and surface water temperature. Locality and water depth data does not need to be recorded since the line is anchored and shouldn't have moved. Ganglions will come out of the water and will be removed from the mainline by the fisherman hauling the gear.

lemon shark
Lemon shark brought up to the boat during a "bottom set"
Landing a hammerhead
The hooks will be removed of any excess bait and hung in their designated area. When sharks are brought up they are generally brought on board unless they are a large prohibited (i.e. dusky) or an unmarketable (i.e. nurse) species. The first duty of the observer is to identify each shark brought up the line to the species level.
nictitating membrane
A quickly reacting nictitating membrane is a good indicator of life
Next is to determine if the shark is alive or dead when it first comes up the line. This can sometimes be difficult to judge since many sharks come up exhausted from being on the line for so long. A good indicator is to touch the shark's eye. If the nictitating membrane (eyelid-like structure) quickly reacts, the shark can be considered alive. The observer needs to record the disposition of each shark as well. In other words, what happens to the shark after it has been caught. There are several disposition categories such as carcassed for sale, used as bait, escaped, tagged, discarded and released. These categories are used to describe what the fishermen end up doing with the shark. Sex of the shark is determined by the presence of claspers, which are located between the pelvic fins. Males have a pair of these external tube-like organs while females do not. Maturity is not recorded in females but is recorded for males according to the size and rigidity of their claspers.

Following the initial identification, alive/dead status, disposition and sex data, measurements of the shark are made. Basic measurements include fork length, total length and clasper length in males. Fork length and total length are measured in centimeters and begin from the snout of the shark. Clasper measurements are recorded in millimeters and measurements are taken of each clasper's inner margin and outer margin.
measuring a shark
Observer taking measurements of a shark
claspers Data collected includes clasper measurements
Small prohibited and unmarketable species of sharks are usually brought on board so the hooks can be removed before they are thrown back in the water. These sharks should be kept alive, measured, tagged if their fork length is over 100cm and released. Most sharks that are going to be carcassed are brought on board alive and killed on deck. This is done by cutting through the shark's spinal cord right behind the head, just anterior to the gills. Some fishermen shoot live sharks before they bring them aboard. This is done for the safety of the crew since live sharks out of water are still quite hazardous. The observer may cut the spinal cord of the live sharks that are going to be carcassed or used for bait and are not killed by the crew. This will safely allow the observer to gain the measurements they need. Since there is limited space to work the observer has to be very aware of their surroundings in order to be safe.

When the measurements have been completed, the shark is then carcassed by one of the fishermen. First the dorsal fin, pectoral fin and the lower lobe of the caudal fin are cut off. Fins are in demand due to the delicacy sharkfin soup found in Asian markets.
shark carcass
Shark carcasses in the ice hold

Generally the price of fins ranges from 25 to 30 dollars a pound. The tail is then cut off the shark and a cut is made on each side of the shark so it can be gutted. The cuts run from the ends of the spinal chord cut, over the gills, down the belly and behind the pelvic fins to the cloaca. The shark is then gutted and the tail, head and guts are thrown overboard. Some fishermen wait until they leave the fishing grounds to dump the head and guts because they feel that it scares other sharks out of the area. Once the excess is dumped, the meat that is left is used for commercial sale and is commonly known as a log. The logs are far less profitable than the fins, usually only fetching 30 cents per pound for the meat, but are important because by law the fishermen cannot land the fins without the carcasses. A trip limit of 4000lbs also exists, meaning that once fishermen reach 4000lbs of logs they must return to the dock and land their catch before they can resume fishing for sharks.
Shark internal organs
Shark internal organs
Observers are responsible for collecting vertebral and/or reproductive samples from certain species of sharks. Vertebral samples are obtained by cutting a row of five or six vertebra out of the specified shark. On sharks that are being carcassed, this sample is generally taken anteriorly from the spinal cord cut. This avoids damaging the carcass while retrieving the sample. After the vertebra have been labeled and bagged, they are stored on ice and the residual flesh on the sample can be used for DNA research. Reproductive samples are much more difficult to obtain than vertebral samples since the shark needs to be dissected and the proper organs need to be located. Because of this, the reproductive samples need to be collected before the shark has been carcassed. In males the testis, epidydimis and seminal vesicle are collected. Female reproductive samples consist of the ovaries, nidamental (a.k.a. shell) gland and uterus. The best way to obtain these samples is to make a carcass cut on the right side of the shark just like the fishermen do. If done properly this allows the observer better access to the organs they need to locate and completes a cut for the fishermen, which saves them time. The cut needs to be done very carefully because if the shark is incorrectly cut the log may be damaged, costing the fishermen money. The samples are then stored in sample bottles containing a ten percent formalin solution.
female reproductive organs
C. acronotus female reproductive organs
Andrew Piercy
Biologist collecting reproductive tissue
As the line is being retrieved, the observer continues to collect data from all sharks that are caught. Anything caught that is not a shark is considered bycatch and is also noted by the observer. If at all possible the observer should record data regarding the species, alive/dead status, disposition and total length measurements on any bycatch that are brought aboard.

The set is finished after the last hook is pulled out of the water. Once again the observer records the time, air and water temperature. The time it takes to haul back the line depends on a number of factors. Amount of mainline, number of hooks, number of sharks caught, weather conditions and the speed at which the captain hauls the gear back all play a roll in how long a haulback will take. Some fishermen prefer to haul back all of the line at once while some will take breaks for lunch during the haul. Generally haulbacks last between three and four hours but can be as short as an hour or as long as thirteen hours. Once the haul is finished, the fishermen will take the cleaned logs and pack them in the ice hold.
Carcassed sharks or 'logs'
Carcassed sharks or "logs"
These holds are usually large boxes in the middle of the deck and are designed to hold at least 4000lbs of fish, so they take up a lot of room. After the logs have been packed into the hold and covered with ice, the deck is cleaned by one of the mates. This involves rinsing off the knives, meathooks, and any other equipment used during the haulback. Also the deck is given a final rinse. Carcassing of sharks is an extremely bloody task so the deck is rinsed periodically during the haul back to prevent blood from drying on the deck. If the trip limit has been reached after the haul, the fishermen will head back to the dock. If not the process will be repeated again. Other factors such as lack of bait and weather conditions may cause fishermen to end a trip before 4000lbs of shark are caught. Normally shark-fishing trips last between three and five days and will consist of three or four sets.

Back at the dock the observer will unload their gear from the boat and fill their cooler with ice for samples that need to be kept fresh. If the fish house is open the fishermen will then unload their catch. The observer needs to stick around to get the final weights of the carcasses and the fins. After the catch has been unloaded and weighed the observer's job is completed and they will either head to Gainesville to drop off their data and samples or go home and wait for the next call.

Commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous and physically demanding professions in the world. While observer duties on shark fishing vessels are not as strenuous as the fishermen's, they are not a walk in the park either. Weather conditions, sharp objects, cramped work areas, live sharks and multiple days at sea are all apart of the observer's life on the ocean. But with hard work comes great rewards. In time the data from the CSFOP should yield management policies that will be economically beneficial to fishermen while keeping shark populations at a sustainable level.

Prepared by:
Pete Cooper