The N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries Observer Program is designed to collect at-sea information about commercial and recreational catch for use in fisheries management decisions, stock assessments, development of fishery management plans, and conservation of protected species.
Through the Observer Program, observers or Marine Patrol officers have collected data from gill net, long haul seine, trawl net, channel net and recreational hook and line fisheries. The data is collected either onboard fishermen’s vessels or from a division vessel operated in the vicinity of gear being fished.
Fishermen are required by N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission rule, the federal Endangered Species Act and the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act to carry observers on board when asked. Failure to do so may lead to enforcement action against the fisherman and could close the fishery for all users. The listing of a species as endangered makes it illegal to "take" (harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do these things) that species. Learn more about the Endangered Species Act.
The division’s Observer Program has existed since 2000 but was expanded in 2010 after a lawsuit settlement agreement required a minimum of 7 percent observer coverage with a goal of 10 percent in the large mesh gill-net fishery in estuarine waters. If the division is unable to provide this minimum coverage, large mesh gill nets may be prohibited in estuarine waters statewide by proclamation until the minimum coverage can resume.
The division has applied for incidental take permits for both Atlantic sturgeon and sea turtles in the large and small mesh gill-net fisheries in estuarine waters from the National Marine Fisheries Service. These permits, authorized under Section 10 of the Endangered Species Act, allow for a certain number of each protected species to be taken before a fishery must close. Both draft permits require observer coverage. For more information on incidental take permits, please visit the NOAA Fisheries Understanding Permits and Authorizations for Protected Species page.
The Endangered Species Act mandates that incidental take permits be based on the best scientific and commercial data available and detail the anticipated impact (amount, extent, and type of anticipated takes) of the proposed activity (such as large and small mesh gillnetting) and outline steps that will be taken to monitor, mitigate, and minimize the impacts. This type of data is collected by programs such as the Observer Program.
Statewide observer coverage for estuarine gill-net fisheries allows the division and the National Marine Fisheries Service to better evaluate and control the impacts of these fisheries on protected species. The statewide approach also enables the National Marine Fisheries Service and division to consider cumulative impacts on a wide scale, as required by the Endangered Species Act, by examining overlapping fisheries.
The division uses proclamation authority to implement management measures necessary to reduce sea turtle takes in estuarine gill-net fisheries in North Carolina. This flexibility is a necessary component for incidental take permits, as increased information will be acquired through extensive monitoring, outreach, and data collections. Proclamation authority allows the division to implement timely responses to provide increased protection of threatened and endangered species. The need for changes in management measures is determined by the division, based on compliance with the Endangered Species Act and discussions with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Appropriate may include gear or area restrictions, attendance requirements, modifications in observer coverage, increased enforcement or a combination of these and other measures. The division consults regularly with the National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that monitoring and management programs maintain the flexibility for the division to monitor, anticipate, respond, and implement needed action. Additionally, by including adaptive management approach, the incidental take permit will allow the division to respond to new information about populations of protected species, changes in knowledge about sea turtle and sturgeon life history characteristics, and enhancements to targeted fishery gear types in a way that protects sea turtles, sturgeon and other endangered or threatened species as well as preserving a fishing industry that relies on access to North Carolina’s estuarine waters.
In order to accomplish incidental take permit objectives and to provide optimal coverage throughout the state, the Observer Program created management units to maintain proper coverage of the fisheries. Management units were delineated on the basis of three primary factors: similarity of fisheries and management; extent of known protected species interactions in commercial gill-net fisheries; unit size; and the ability of the division to monitor fishing effort.
All species of sea turtles found in North Carolina waters are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and unpermitted interactions with these animals are illegal. This includes interactions that occur with commercial and recreational fishing gears.
Loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, and green sea turtles are the most prevalent sea turtles found in North Carolina waters, while leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles occur less frequently. Sea turtles populate North Carolina waters from approximately April through December of each year. They migrate into the estuaries each spring before leaving in the winter to find warmer waters.
There are two species of sturgeon found in North Carolina estuarine inshore and near shore waters (Atlantic Sturgeon and Shortnose Sturgeon). Juvenile fish are found year round while adults are anadromous, migrating from the ocean to freshwater to spawn in the fall and spring. The juvenile fish are mainly found in freshwater while the adults can withstand higher salinities. Sturgeon typically prey on invertebrates such as crustaceans, worms, and mollusks. Both Atlantic and shortnose sturgeon are listed as endangered species and unpermitted interactions with these animals is illegal, including those interactions that occur with commercial and recreational fishing gears.
Marine mammals are present year-round in estuarine and coastal waters. They can be found as far inshore as rivers and throughout state and federal waters. Many marine mammals feed on fish both small and large. The most common species of marine mammal you are likely to encounter in North Carolina estuarine and nearshore waters is the bottlenose dolphin. Humpback whales are also common in nearshore North Carolina waters, particularly in late fall and winter months.