MARION — AIS Inc. of Marion, has been awarded a five-year, $50 million contract to provide fisheries observers for federal monitoring programs in the Northeast.

Rick Usher, Operations Manager for AIS, Inc., told WBSM News the company, which has been around since 1994, has a lot of experience in the Northeast region, having first been awarded the northeast fisheries observer contract in 2002. The contract was then renewed in 2007, but a different firm was awarded the contract in 2012.

"Then in 2016, the incumbent contractor needed support, so they put out another bid for a contract, because of the increase in sea days had expanded so much," Usher said. "So we were re-awarded the area from Maine to Connecticut in 2016 in October, and we've been working on this contract in a lesser geographic region, until now we're expanding down into the North Carolina area. So we're very familiar with the contract."

Fisheries observers work aboard commercial fishing vessels during fishing trips. They collect information on catch, both kept and discarded, as well as biological data and information on gear and fishing operations over a range of commercial fisheries. These data are used extensively by researchers and fishery managers to better understand the condition of fishery stocks, fishing businesses, and fishing operations.

Usher said AIS currently has 65 observers in the field, with another eight to 10 in training. A training class with an additional 20 people will be held in August.

"It should be a big boost," Usher said. "It's a good opportunity for a marine biologist just out of college. A lot of of our observers have gone on and currently work in NOAA offices as full-time employees."

AIS has other contracts as well, such as observing the groundfish program in Alaska, and the incoming wind energy industry has also added new opportunities.

"We provide protective species observers for offshore wind farm development, providing passing acoustic monitors, protective species monitors for geophysical, geotechnical surveys, when they produce sound sources in the water that could harass marine mammals," he said.

Usher said groundfish monitors for the Northeast region will go through a 21-day training course through NOAA, before going through extensive additional training with AIS.

"Basically, they learn how to go on fishing boats, which is basically someone's house. It's like going in someone's house," he said. "There's definitely a learning curve."

As a former fishing boat captain himself, Usher knows the benefit of having local monitors on New Bedford-area fishing vessels.

"It's a different time for the fishermen up here, especially the groundfishermen," he said. "It's been a really hard time with the quota system, climate change is not helping things, the water. There's a lot of adapting going on for fishermen right now, so it does help having local people."

NOAA Fisheries covers all costs for the Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, trains and certifies observers, and handles the data they collect. The agency also develops an annual schedule of observed days needed for each fishery in the region in order to collect enough information to estimate total catch (landings and discards), and interactions with marine mammals. The contractor is responsible for recruiting and maintaining a cadre of certified observers and for deploying them to obtain the required number of observed days for each fishery.

The Fisheries Sampling Branch at NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Fisheries Science Center will manage the contract.

Material from a NOAA press release was used in this report.