22 October 2019

Receiving a last minute call to head out on a weeklong trip to observe Commonwealth commercial fishing operations has never made Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) Observer, Steve Cunliffe, shy away from the job. Steve has been an AFMA Observer for over ten years and his enjoyment of the work is just as strong today as it was a decade ago. Hear from Steve about his experiences as an AFMA Observer.

As a Senior Fisheries Observer, I have enjoyed the opportunities the role has offered me, having worked in all Australian Commonwealth fisheries with the exception of the Northern Prawn Fishery. The diverse locations, cultures and characters I have been exposed to have been a highlight for me in a career with AFMA that has spanned over ten years.

As an Observer, I have served over 1500 days working at sea collecting biological data, taking part in a wide range of research programs from Patagonian toothfish tagging to collecting tissue samples from the incidental catch of live sunfish in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery.

Much of my work in recent years has been in the Southern Ocean on long duration voyages which stay at sea for between 80 and 120 days. I have accumulated almost three years continuous sea time in Sub-Antarctic waters. Managing fatigue in rough conditions can be a challenge, as well as maintaining healthy relationships back on shore with limited means of communication and the isolation and confinement which is all part of the work environment.

There is always a sense of achievement upon completion of these long voyages, having had to handle massive amounts of data (and fish) as well as producing reports for Australian Government agencies and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.


Shaking hands with the Captain at the end of a long voyage on the FV Southern Champion.

I have formed some solid friendships with people I would never have otherwise met as the comradery of the shared experience in adverse conditions fosters positive relationships. There is always a euphoric feeling upon reaching land again after these long voyages, which does not diminish despite having completed numerous long-haul trips.

Sometimes my role requires me to have some challenging conversations with stakeholders, and the ability to live and work with everyone on board harmoniously requires good interpersonal skills and cultural awareness.

I am most appreciative of the support I have received from both AFMA and Australian Antarctic Division staff while at sea, both professionally and personally. Despite the high cost to one’s family life, the rewards and lifestyle are good. To play a part in maintaining the sustainability of Australian fisheries both domestically and internationally has been a privilege.

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AFMA places observers on Commonwealth commercial boats in many Commonwealth fisheries to collect unique, accurate and reliable data on fishing operations, catches, and interactions with the marine environment by the vessel and its fishing gear.

More information on the AFMA Observer Program can be found at afma.gov.au.