Fishery observer Stewart Alderson

Stewart Alderson is an on-board fisheries observer for MPI. We caught up with Stewart to talk about his role on the front line with New Zealand's fishing industry, what it involves, and how he is working to keep our shared fisheries sustainable now and into the future.


How did you end up as a fisheries observer?

Stewart holding up a fish longer than he is

 

This role was a pretty natural fit for me. Growing up near beaches, and spending time fishing as a kid, fuelled my love of the sea and I developed a passion for conservation.

This, combined with my interest in science, led me to study marine biology at Victoria University in Wellington.

I took up the observer role after graduating, originally planning to do a year or 2, but 6 years later I'm still here, and really enjoying it.

 

What does your job involve?

A tub of red gurnard on ice

The part people tend to know well is gathering catch and effort data, and making sure the vessels' recordings match up with what we're seeing. We also collect data on fish processing and fishing activity.

People don’t tend to know about the scientific collection. We take biological samples from about 100 fish a day for size and sex, and I collect ear bones which are sent to NIWA to find out how old the fish is and where it's come from. This feeds into reviews of fish stocks and helps MPI to manage fisheries.

We also look at interactions with seabirds and mammals. Any captures are photographed and DNA samples are taken. We look for things like offal discards attracting sea birds.

Another part of the job is assisting fishers on how to correctly identify fish species and checking to make sure crew on-board know the rules. Good communication is key.

On some vessels we also check labour conditions for workers on board.

What is the best part about your job?

View from a fishing vessel of the sun rising over the ocean

The most rewarding part for me is checking on working conditions for the fishers, and it’s been great to see that conditions are getting better and better.

Working in a job where no 2 days are ever the same is something that appeals to me too. There are always unexpected things, like one time we saw an orca teaching her calf how to catch fish.

It's also a great work life balance and I really like how flexible it is. You let MPI know when you are available, and then are rostered on dates that suit. I do around 150 sea days a year. One of our observers does just 2 trips a year as a semi-retirement gig.

What is the toughest part of the job?

While I really like being out at sea, and get a lot out of the job, it can be pretty isolating at times. Most trips have only one observer on board, and you're away from friends and family for up to 6 weeks. I can send emails which helps a lot.

Is it hard working and living with people you're observing?

It's rare for me to go out on a boat that hasn't had an observer on board before, so they know the drill. On the smaller boats, or one that hasn't had an observer before, it can be a bit tougher. But something as simple as offering to make people a cuppa can go a long way.

It helps that I'm there to observe and report, not to give out infringements.

Why do you think your role is important?

A tagged fish lying on measurement grid

While most commercial fishers are doing the right thing, it's good to be out there observing and reporting on what is happening. New Zealanders don't get to see what commercial fishers are doing in our oceans so it's important they know we are checking in. 

It's also important we maintain independent science collection to help manage the fishery. When I'm taking samples from fish I'm impartial with the ones I sample, not just picking the biggest to make data look better. The information we collect can be trusted and used as scientific evidence.

What does it take to do the job?

We are a pretty diverse bunch. A number of us are science graduates, we have quite a few ex-commercial fishers, and we even have a guy who was an insurance fraud investigator for 20 years.

You need to be OK with being away from home for long periods of time and being able to get stuck in and get the job done. I find it really helpful with my science background understanding how important our job is in making sure our fisheries are sustainable for future generations.

If you care about our fisheries, are able to record data accurately and can get on with strangers, the rest you can learn in our training.

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