The Western and Central Pacific Ocean is the largest fishery on the planet, and the network of regional observers that are operate here is likewise the largest in the world. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has listed as working in the area 820 observers from the Pacific Islands countries and territories (PICTs), and another 800 from elsewhere. Between 300 and 400 are at sea at any one time.

The WCPFC, the Fisheries Monitoring Section of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) have developed a single set of standards for observers working in the region, and for observer training and accreditation among the PICTs. It is the Pacific Islands Regional Fisheries Observer (PIRFO) standards qualification.

Training, accreditation and ongoing development of observers

The PIRFO set of standards is the only regional standard qualification for observers in the world. It forms the basis for all the national observer programmes in the region.

The idea of having a regionally standard competency-based qualification for Pacific Island fisheries observers was proposed in 2007, and the program has advanced since then and continues to grow. The training covers two parts. The first part is for generic skills (e.g. safety, emergency response, communication, first aid, firefighting) for all personnel on fishing vessels. The second part focuses on the specific skills relating to observer reporting and monitoring.

There has been a massive increase in the demand for observers, debriefers and observer trainers with the rapid growth of tuna fishing in the WCPO and following the decision of the WCPFC that every purse-seine vessel must carry an observer on board. The PIRFO standards were developed to ensure that training in these jobs is harmonised across the region, and attracts certification and accreditation.

New standards have been developed for electronic reporting and monitoring, and certification of Marine Stewardship Council chain of custody. The program also now includes observer debriefer, observer debriefer trainer, PIRFO trainer and, more recently, observer program management training.

A 2015 working paper describes a long-term strategy for training and supporting observers, who contribute data that WCPFC uses in setting and updating fishing rules. It also discusses professional accreditation and the need to continue to develop standards.

The SPC’s Oceanic Fisheries Programme has two areas related to observers’ work:

Documents useful for trainee observers include the CMM for the Regional Observer Programme, the WCPFC ROP standards and guidelines, an observer handbook about the CMMs, and the materials on the PIRFO website.

People interested in training to be an observer can find out more about the role in an FFA fisheries brief.


There is increasing focus on research and training to improve observers’ skills worldwide. Photo credit: Francisco Blaha.

Electronic monitoring and reporting becoming the norm

Increasingly, Pacific Islands observers are equipped with tablets and satellite communication devices. Tablets enable them to collect and transmit monitoring data as they are captured, and make reporting easier to complete and easier to harmonise between island nations.

Satellite communication devices mean that they don’t have to rely on the vessel’s communication system. This is particularly important when they suspect that illegal, unreported or unregulated (IUU) fishing is occurring.

Pacific Island Observer with tablet and satellite communications device Photo: FFA
The well-equipped observer now carries a tablet and satellite communication device, so they can work independently of the vessel’s communications systems. Photo: FFA

Electronic monitoring can complement the work that observers do, particularly on purse-seine vessels, although it also supplements observation on the 5% of longline fishing vessels that carry observers.

SPC’s Neville Smith describes some basic differences in observation work on these two types of vessels, and explains some benefits and limitations of electronic monitoring (2.28 mins).