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One of the Most Important Jobs at Sea May Get More Difficult and Dangerous

Independent fisheries observers are put onboard commercial fishing boats to collect crucial data for regulators on what is being caught and how. But their role can put them in conflict with captains and crew. Observers are now fighting an effort to undermine protections for their work.

Written by Katarina Zimmer Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
Tuna being offloaded from a fishing boat.Craig Ferguson/LightRocket via Getty Images

Trapped on the high seas of the Pacific Ocean onboard a commercial fishing boat whose captain was becoming increasingly angry with him, Simione Cagilaba held his ground, but it wasn’t easy.

As a professional fisheries observer, it was Cagilaba’s job to document whether the vessel was following regulations designed to ensure that tuna fishing occurs legally and sustainably. Every day, he would estimate how much tuna was caught and record if, for example, the boat’s crew was targeting protected species or throwing trash into the ocean.

The captain became infuriated, according to Cagilaba’s own account of the 2015 incident (which could not be independently verified), because he had refused to ignore an infraction he saw – the dumping of smaller, already-dead catch overboard so that the boat could go after larger, higher-value fish. The captain tried to pressure Cagilaba to change his report, he said in an interview, but he refused.

Inspectors and independent observers face pressures in all kinds of industries, but fisheries observers like Cagilaba have it far harder than most. 

In many fisheries, like those in the west and central Pacific Ocean, observers have a difficult dual role: They collect scientific data and also monitor compliance with the increasing number of management measures designed to protect fish stocks. Recruited either directly by national governments or contracted observer provider programs, fisheries observers don’t enforce the law, but they are required to report infringements. Importantly, the independent data they collect on board, such as how many fish are caught and their size and species, is crucial to crafting limits designed to prevent unsustainable overfishing. This is why most regional fisheries management organizations, the international governing bodies that set the rules, have started observer programs.

A vendor sells juvenile yellow fin tuna in Manila. Fisheries observers collect data to prevent unsustainable overfishing in the Pacific. (JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images)

“First and foremost, they’re the eyes and ears for the fishery managers,” said Mark Young, who served as a director of fisheries operations for the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency and is now a project director at the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

As was Cagilaba’s experience, however, observers can be pressured or intimidated out at sea on ships that can take months to cross the ocean, outnumbered by captains and their crew.

“When the ratio is 20 or 30 to 1, it’s hard to protect yourself,” said Cagilaba, a 40-year-old Fijian who was one of about 800 observers working in the west and central region of the Pacific. The 2016 annual report of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), the regulatory body in the region, home to one of the world’s largest tuna fisheries, lists 54 cases from observers who reported being assaulted or prevented from doing their job, asked not to report incidents or denied food, water or safety gear. The low wages observers are paid compared to the value of the fish being caught can also create situations that are ripe for potential bribery, said Young.

The issue of observer safety has received more attention in recent years because there have been at least half a dozen cases over the past decade in which observers have died or disappeared on a ship in unexplained circumstances, according to a list maintained by the Association of Professional Fisheries Observers (APO), a United States-based advocacy group.

In most of these cases, details on investigations have not been made public. The list includes Keith Davis, an American observer who worked in the eastern Pacific and who served on the board of the APO, advocating for observer rights, until he vanished from a boat in 2015. Most recently, the Papua New Guinean observer James Numbaru was reported missing in June in an incident that is still being investigated, according to a recent report on fishery observer safety by Human Rights at Sea.

Cagilaba, who is also active in the APO, says it is challenging to get working observers to talk about difficulties or threats they may face as they fear retribution if they are assigned to the same ship again. He says he experienced a form of retaliation firsthand. Soon after the incident with the captain in 2015, Cagilaba’s employment was not renewed, he said, as a result of a complaint the captain filed about him. He believes this caused him to lose his job, and he later filed his own complaint at a U.S. embassy because the ship was flying a U.S. flag. (In a statement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed its Office of Law Enforcement completed an investigation into the allegations in March and forwarded it to its Office of General Counsel. “The Enforcement Section declined prosecution on December 8, 2017, and the case is now closed,” Kate Brogan, a public affairs officer for NOAA Fisheries, said in an email.)

Noting the string of observer disappearances, Pacific Island nations, which supply many of the observers in the region, and nonprofits like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund, have been pushing for improved transparency and protections for observers within the WCPFC. The organization is collectively managed by 26 countries that fish within its jurisdiction, including those with large fishing industries such as South Korea, China and Japan, as well as Pacific Island countries like Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Marshall Islands.

In 2016, after much debate, WCPFC nations agreed to some measuresincluding providing observers with two-way devices so they can communicate directly with authorities on shore. Previously, observers had to go through captains or higher officers to do so. Another measure requires that if an observer is missing or presumed fallen overboard, the fishing vessel must immediately start a search-and-rescue operation.

More recently, though, some nations have been pushing back against such protections and the greater accountability they bring. At a September meeting of the WCPFC in Micronesia, South Korea made a proposal that advocates believe would give captains more power over the job security of observers.

Lone fisherman at work aboard a Taiwanese fishing boat. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Their proposal would provide an official code of conduct for observers and give captains the authority to report on cases of “observer misconduct” directly to the commission’s members. It prohibits, for instance, observers from entering cabins or areas of the boat designated as “clean areas,” from using “bad or obscene languages” and requires them to maintain “personal hygiene.” It also includes a ban on betel nut, which is habitually chewed by Pacific Islanders, making their mouth red, and is often spat out on the ground after chewing.

While captains can already file complaints directly to observer provider programs – which already often have their own codes of conduct – the new proposal would give these complaints more weight, creating an “compliance checklist” captains fill out. The proposal spells out specific consequences, such as suspension or termination, if an investigation finds rules were violated. A South Korean delegate to WCPFC told Oceans Deeply that the proposed measures are needed because the current system is unfair. Observers shouldn’t be able to make official reports against captains, he said, if the reverse isn’t allowed.

“Basically, the captains, they are afraid of the observer, because he is so powerful … But we need some balance so we can focus on fishing activity,” said Anthony Kim, who is also deputy general manager of Silla, a South Korean fishing company that operates a large fleet in the Western Pacific.

Although he called the observer program highly important, he said “misunderstandings” with observers in recent years have begun to hamper fishing. South Korea’s proposal claims there are increasing cases of observer misconduct, although it doe not provide evidence for that assertion. Of the betel nut provision, he simply says: “It’s a bit dirty, you know.”

If passed, advocates worry the new rules will empower captains to abuse or pressure observers and hamper their ability to report accurate data. Creation of an exclusionary “clean area” could be used to avoid scrutiny if protected species are caught, for instance. Since observers usually don’t get fixed contracts and their salary is dependent on each trip, Cagilaba believes there is danger observers would no longer be impartial: “If everyone backs that proposal by South Korea, in the long run, all I can say is that the data quality will be very inadequate,” he said.

Alfred Cook, the program manager for the World Wildlife Fund’s Western and Central Pacific program, calls the proposal “a targeted effort to try and undermine the improvements in observer safety and security measures.”

However, he also sees it as a sign that observers are doing their job well. “They have been disempowered, threatened and abused for so long, it’s actually encouraging to hear that observers are feeling empowered enough that the fishing industry is threatened by the honesty and transparency they will bring to fisheries management.”

At the December meeting of the WCPFC in the Philippines, Pacific Island countries pushed back against the proposal but were unable to defeat it. South Korea, with the support of Japan, kept the discussion going. A final decision will likely be made at a meeting in October 2018.

Meanwhile, Cagilaba is concerned that observers’ jobs are getting more dangerous and difficult as many boats compete for fewer fish. The captains get very reckless, because at the end of the day, it’s the catch that they take on board, which counts. It’s their money,” he said.

The new proposal, if passed, could be the last straw for some beleaguered observers, he believes. “As I see it, observers will no longer want to go out to sea, he said.

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