Streamlining Fisheries Data Collection with ORCA: An App Built for At-Sea Conditions
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Streamlining Fisheries Data Collection with ORCA: An App Built for At-Sea Conditions

In Brief_ORCA-8

In Brief

ORCA app changes the game for fisheries observers

On a boat in the rolling Pacific, obtaining clear and complete data with just pencils and paper poses a significant challenge. Despite this, NOAA Fisheries-trained observers on fishing vessels were successfully gathering essential scientific data using these traditional methods—but it was time consuming and difficult.

The West Coast Region Observer Program and Resource Data revolutionized marine data collection through the development of the Onboard Record Collection App (ORCA), a tablet-based application designed specifically to withstand temperamental at-sea conditions. Information integral to ensuring the sustainability of fisheries is now gathered more efficiently, significantly saving time and improving data quality for precise reporting.

Key Takeaways

Streamlined marine data collection with a thoughtfully designed app

  1. Digital data collection for enhanced data integrity

    By transitioning from paper-based to digital forms, ORCA reduces human error, ensures consistency across data points, and improves the reliability of data collected at sea.

  2. UX/UI designed for use in harsh weather conditions

    ORCA’s tile-like design and adaptable display modes minimize the challenges posed by at-sea conditions. A touch-friendly interface enables quick, error-free data entry, even while wearing gloves.

  3. Built-in functionality for ease and accuracy

    The addition of GPS functionality, automatic time-stamping, and simplified image capturing directly tackles previous logistical hurdles, enhancing the precision of location and species identification data.

  4. Touchscreens for streamlined data entry

    The app’s streamlined processes significantly reduce the time required for data entry and submission. Observers seamlessly shift between digital fields instead of paper forms, allowing more focus on observation and less on paperwork.

  5. Scalable and adaptable for broader application

    Since ORCA’s successful implementation, it’s been deployed and customized for other Observer Programs, including NMFS Pacific Island Regional Office.

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The Challenges

Traditional paper-based data collection risks inaccuracy and wastes time

The West Coast Region Observer Program (WCROP) assigns NOAA Fisheries-trained observers to fishing vessels to collect data and monitor the incidental capture of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Observers record fishing activity, gear setup, and the catch and disposition of both target and non-target fish species, along with collecting biological samples for studies and stock assessments. This information is crucial for fisheries sustainability.

A new standard deep set buoy gear targeting swordfish and reducing bycatch in the West Coast and California ecosystem prompted innovation. Observers, using traditional paper forms ill-suited for the at-sea environment with its high winds and rolling seas, had only seconds to record interactions. They shuffled through different waterproof paper forms, and once ashore, they faced a lengthy process of delivering forms to the program office and manually entering data into a computer.

Observers required a digital solution robust enough for the marine environment to simplify data recording at sea. The need to avoid data loss and inaccuracies from traditional methods also led to a push for technology transformation.

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The Solution

An app with UX/UI designed for extreme weather conditions

The ORCA app, a robust and intuitive tablet application, seamlessly phased out traditional paper-based methods for recording data on fishing activities, bycatch, and marine sightings.

Our approach was rooted in a user-centric design philosophy, involving Observers in the development process to ensure the app stands up to the stringent requirements of at-sea data collection and guarantees efficiency and reliability.


Built-in Efficiencies Save Time for Observers, Vessel Crew, and NOAA Fisheries

  1. Touch-oriented tiles for quick and easy data entry

    Large, accessible tiles with images and text, allows observers to quickly navigate through multiple forms and capture data quickly.

  2. Adaptable display modes for usability in any weather

    ORCA features adjustable brightness levels and display modes to ensure visibility across varying weather conditions. Dark mode, for example, reduces glare and allows observers to view their screens in bright, sunny conditions.

  3. Intelligent form inputs for speed and accuracy

    The app’s smart form features include touch data selection, drop-down options, and pre-filled trip data, allowing Observers to move faster through the data entry sequence while reducing errors.

  4. GPS receiver for location-based intelligence

    To link accurate location information with fisheries data while offline, ORCA integrates with a built-in GPS receiver in the rugged, waterproof tablets.

  5. Built-in camera integration for easier observation

    Observers no longer need to reach for a separate device to take a picture for later review and identification. Built-in cameras make it easy to take a picture and immediately link it to the right observation and form.

  6. Offline operation and automated synchronization for streamlined processes

    The app pre-loads trip data, including data from previous trips, ensuring information is accessible while offline. New data collection synchs when Internet becomes available.

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“The more you can shorten the path between the data entry method and the database, the less likely you are to end up with inaccurate or bad data. You cut out those quality control slips. Observers can now spend more time on biological sampling and not worry about data forms getting soaked or blown away. It’s so much easier and efficient.”

- Jody Van Niekerk, ORCA Project co-lead & Biologist, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region


Expanding ORCA's reach to foster easier ecosystem management

ORCA and its corresponding reporting system replaced manual, error-laden processes saving time for observers and NOAA Fisheries staff. The app makes it easier to consolidate data for reporting and increases Observer Program data integrity. The app’s effectiveness as a data collection and reporting tool facilitated its adoption by additional fisheries.

Through connections forged while developing ORCA, including Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC) and Pacific Fisheries Information Network (PacFIN), Resource Data designed and implemented a new version of ORCA for the Pacific Islands Regional Observer Program (PIROP) for the pelagic longline fisheries. Both PIROP and WCROP currently share the ORCA application, facilitating data entry by observers from both programs.

“The tablets definitely make our job a lot easier in terms of organization and keeping track and getting information down correctly.”

~ Matthew Speegle, NOAA Fisheries Observer
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What's Next

Setting the new standard in marine data collection

The vision is for ORCA to become a standard tool in marine data collection and reporting, fostering better ecosystem management through advanced technology.

We continue to provide ongoing support and enhancements. The immediate strategy involves merging the two versions of ORCA into a single code base, making it more adaptable for multiple fisheries and agencies in the future and facilitating better data sharing across NOAA and other fisheries organizations.