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At-Sea Observer Survey

What is the Florida For-Hire At-Sea Observer Survey?

Florida’s For-Hire At-Sea Observer Survey is a cooperative research project with FWC’s Fishery Dependent Monitoring Program and the for-hire fishing industry in Florida. The At-Sea Survey was specifically designed to monitor the types of fish that are caught and released in the recreational hook-and-line fishery and quantify their survival. Fishery managers often restrict harvest in order to prevent overfishing; however, an unfortunate outcome is that higher numbers of fish released undersized or out of season may result in increased discard mortality. Discard mortality includes fish that are caught alive and subsequently die from injuries or predation soon after they are released. Allowing FWC biologists to ride along on recreational fishing trips and directly observe how fish are caught and released at-sea is helping us better monitor and assess the health of fish populations and the sustainability of the recreational fishery, as well as measure the effectiveness of regulations and better outreach to anglers about best catch-and-release practices.

At-Sea Observer Survey In Depth

Program Objectives

FWC tag return flier. Includes information on how to contact FWC if a angler catches a tagged fish.

The primary objective of the At-Sea Survey is to fill gaps in recreational data needed to better inform stock assessments and support sound management decisions. Unlike recreational fishing surveys that are conducted dockside, the At-Sea Survey allows biologists to directly observe fishes as they are harvested and released. Data collected at-sea provides valuable insight into the numbers and types of fish that are discarded, catch and release practices used within the fishery, and post-release survivability. Additionally, observers collect biological samples from harvested and released fish that are used for size and age compositions, maturity, and genetic analysis.

A key component of the At-Sea Survey is a large-scale mark-recapture study designed to quantify survival rates for important managed species caught and released within the recreational hook-and-line fishery. FWC biologists tag a variety of reef fishes that are frequently released due to size, seasons, and bag limits, such as Red Grouper, Gag, Gray Triggerfish, Red Snapper, Mutton Snapper, Amberjack, and Hogfish. Tagged fish that are subsequently recaptured by recreational anglers and commercial harvesters may be reported to FWC’s Tag-Return Hotline using the telephone number or e-mail address printed directly on the fish tag. Participating for-hire operators also report tagged fish that their customers recapture directly to FWC. Analysts use this information to estimate the percentage of fish that ultimately survive catch-and-release caught under various conditions. Since the inception of the At-Sea Survey, FWC biologists have tagged over 120,000 fishes.


Participating for-hire vessels are randomly selected each week to carry FWC biologists. During a sampled trip, FWC biologists observe recreational anglers and collect data from their fish as they are caught. This includes information on the number and types of species caught, capture depth, methods used to catch and release fish, whether fish are harvested or released, catch-related injuries such as hook location and barotrauma symptoms, and condition upon release. Each variable provides essential information that helps to inform stock assessments and management decisions.

The hook-type and location where it embeds is invaluable information that has helped quantify the impacts of conservation efforts, such as the requirement to use circle hooks when fishing for reef fishes. Circle hooks more frequently set in the lip or jaw, versus J hooks that tend to set deeper and cause internal injuries. Hook location may be used to predict survivability, as a gut-hooked fish is less likely to survive than one hooked in the lip. Barotrauma is a condition caused by the fast change of pressure within the gas-filled swim bladder of a fish when it is rapidly pulled up from deep water to the surface. Symptoms of barotrauma that may be externally visible include abdominal bloating, bulging eyes, an everted stomach pushed through a fish’s mouth, extruded intestines, and air bubbles that form under the scales. Barotrauma symptoms may be indicative of likely mortality when the fish’s ability to resubmerge and return to depth is inhibited, or the internal pressure from the inflated swim bladder is severe enough to cause organ failure. Mitigation techniques include the use of venting and recompression tools when releasing fish with barotrauma symptoms. Venting is the process of using a hollow needle to puncture the swim bladder and allow gas pressure to release, effectively deflating the fish. Recompression tools are used to attach the fish to a weighted line and descend it rapidly back down to depth, which recompresses the gases internally, allowing the fish to regain control and swim off.

Collecting information on the condition of discards and methods used to release them helps researchers make informed predictions on survivability for species with high discard rates in Florida. If release mortality is unaccounted for, efforts to sustainably manage stocks may be ineffective. The At-Sea survey fills that gap by collecting data that are a true representation of fishery removals and accounts for the impacts of both harvest rates and mortality associated with released fish.

Research Contributions

Data and analyses from the At-Sea Survey have contributed to many stock assessments for Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic stocks conducted through the SouthEast, Data, Assessment, and Review (SEDAR). New findings for a number of monitored species such as gag, red grouper, and red snapper, which are susceptible to barotrauma, have improved the reliability of estimated survival rates applied to recreational discards used in the assessments for these stocks.

Return ‘Em Right Partnership

FWC is partnered with Return ‘Em Right, a program with the mission to improve reef fish survival by equipping anglers with the knowledge and gear to confidently and successfully release reef fish. The At-Sea Survey is providing data that may be used to evaluate potential reductions in discard mortality from the increased use of descending devices, venting tools, and other best practices for catch-and-release. To assist in conservation efforts, Return ‘Em Right equips anglers with tools and the information free of charge to enhance reef fish survivability from catch and release in the Gulf of Mexico.

A Cooperative Research Partnership

FWC relies on the continued partnership with charter and headboat vessel operators across Florida who have volunteered to participate in this cooperative research. FWC and the for-hire industry share a vested interest in improving data used to monitor, assess, and manage reef fish stocks important to recreational anglers in Florida. This partnership is a way that stakeholders can be directly involved by allowing their catch to better inform regional stock assessments and fisheries management decisions. These partner vessels provide the platform and support for FWC biological scientists who are trained to effectively handle, tag, and record catch on-board their vessels. Vessel operators are compensated for providing space for FWC biologists on the vessel. Guests on participating boats not only enjoy seeing fisheries science in action, but also get to be a part of the process with their catch being measured, tagged, and potentially recaptured in the future. Anglers that catch a tagged fish are rewarded with a T-shirt and the information gained from their tagged fish such as growth, movement, and time since original capture. Participating vessels are more likely to catch tagged fish as reef fish are shown to be heavily site oriented and can be recaptured multiple times within the same area.

If you own an offshore charter or headboat and are interested in being a part of this project, please contact us.

If you are a registered For-Hire charter or headboat and would like more information on the At-Sea Observe Program, please fill out the form below. 

At-Sea Observer Program

Thank you for your interest in FWC’s At-Sea Observer Program. If you have any questions regarding the program, please contact us. For vessels that qualify and would like to register, please fill out a W-9 form and submit via email.

Science Snippets: Fisheries Dependent Monitoring- At Sea Tagging Program

A day in the life of an At-Sea biologist.