Disappearances, danger and death: what is happening to fishery observers?

Liz Mitchell was on her laptop in her living room in Eugene, Oregon, when she got the news. Thousands of miles away, on a Taiwanese fishing boat, a fishery observer named Eritara Aati Kaierua had been found dead.

Details were scant. The ship’s name (Win Far No 636), the dead man’s passport number, and where the boat was now headed: the port of Kiribati, a central Pacific island nation on the equator.

But for Mitchell, president of the Association of Professional Observers (APO), it was sadly nothing new – another death, devoid of facts.

“We’ve recorded one or two deaths of fishery observers every year since 2015,” says Mitchell. “All with the same outcome: no information.”

Her non-profit organisation advocates on behalf of this little-known workforce of ocean watchdogs, who have suffered a rash of disappearances and unexplained deaths that experts say is no coincidence.

“The playbook of each disappearance or death is the same. The news leaks out from unofficial sources. The families are told: ‘We’re looking into it.’ They hear nothing. They express grief and anger and they are overwhelmed with questions.”

Mitchell fired off emails about Kaierua to officials, urging investigators to examine the potential for foul play or medical neglect, and to preserve critical evidence. On 25 March, Kiribati police said a pathologist had found that Kaierua, a 40-year-old father of four, had died from a traumatic brain injury. They were treating his death as murder.

The tragedy brought the tally of deaths or disappearances at sea among this vulnerable workforce to nine since 2015, including a Ghanaian observer whose disappearance was reported by the Guardian last year.

Independent fishery observers have one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. They travel aboard fishing vessels, tracking catches – including any bycatch of endangered species – in order to preserve fish stocks. Their job, if done properly, can pit them against hostile crew, particularly if they spot activities such as illegal fishing, trafficking or shark finning. Harassment and intimidation are common.

To make matters worse, jurisdictional responsibilities at sea are complex: many ships fish in international waters, or fly the flags of countries reluctant to bring prosecutions. There is no international protocol for investigating the death of an observer.

In many cases observers are operating unprotected, according to a report in February by Greenpeace, the APO and the University of New York. They found that none of the 17 regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs, the global institutions in charge of fisheries) have regulations to protect the rights and safety of observers. Only four had a policy on what to do if an observer disappears or dies.

A ship flying a flag of convenience means the owner has registered the vessel in a country other than their own. The ship flies the ensign or flag of that country, known as the flag state and operates under its laws, typically laxer than the owner’s own.

For a ship owner, the advantage of this arrangement includes comparatively fewer regulations, lower employment requirements, and thus cheaper labour, cheaper registration fees and lower or no taxes.

For crew members, the disadvantages tend towards lower working standards, fewer rights and little protection. They are opposed by the International Transport Workers' Federation.

Panama, which has the largest ship registry globally, followed by Liberia, operates an “open registry”, allowing foreign owners to register ships under its flag. It guarantees anonymity to the owners, making it difficult for them to be held to account.

The practice began in the 1920s in the US, when owners of cruise ships registered their vessels in Panama so that they could serve their passengers alcohol during Prohibition.

Karen McVeigh, senior reporter

Recently, fishing companies have used the coronavirus pandemic to push back against even those scant regulations – arguing against the need for third-party observers. Following pressure from the US fishing industry, claiming observers carry a threat of infection, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues temporary waivers on the federal requirement for fishing vessels to carry observers.

In an open letter last month, 19 NGOs including Greenpeace and WWF expressed concern about this development, saying any relaxation of monitoring and surveillance of commercial fisheries would allow more illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which already accounts for $23.5bn (£18.8bn) and one in five wild-caught marine fish.

The very reason fishery observers are needed – the difficulty of seeing what happens aboard ships in international waters – is also what makes them vulnerable. While global data is scarce, a 2016 survey of alleged incidents reported by US observers, obtained via freedom of information requests by the APO and Public Employees for Public Responsibility (Peer), found that reports of alleged harassment from 2013 to 2015 had more than doubled, rising from 35 to 84.

Preliminary findings of a similar survey for 2017 and 2018 suggest the problem is continuing.

“It is difficult to get a picture of trends at this stage, but I can say harassment is a continuing problem,” says Kevin Bell, a staff lawyer at Peer based in Washington, DC.

After reporting a spike in observer sexual assault and harassment claims earlier this year, the NOAA said it was hiring more investigators and victims’ advocates to respond and had introduced a prevention programme.

A spokesman for the NOAA said the spike was reflective of it monitoring allegations for the first time. It reported 23 allegations of sexual assault and harassment against observers in 2018 and 15 in 2019.

The deaths/disappearance of three observers, including US citizens Keith Davis and Josh Sheldon in 2015 and 2016, and Usaia Masibalavu, a Fijian who was working on a US-flagged vessel, also in 2016, prompted the NOAA to carry out a safety review in 2018. The review team said that while jurisdictional issues were complex in two of the cases, outside US waters, “more could have been done in cooperation with other agencies” to achieve “comprehensive and transparent closure of these tragic incidents”.

The NOAA stressed that its ability to protect observers was limited to US jurisdiction, but said it engaged with RFMOs and law enforcement to ensure high safety standards internationally.

Philip Brown, 64, a former fisheries observer from Arizona, mostly on tuna long-liners and swordfish vessels out of Hawaii, says he signed up for the adventure – “and the fact that I’m one of the good guys, saving the whale” – but had no illusions about the job.

“It’s dangerous. I’ve seen people just about get washed overboard” he says.

“It takes a tough person to be an observer. A lot of new observers don’t have the people skills.”

Brown says he has been intimidated, offered bribes and otherwise hassled while doing his job. “But with the power of the government and the US Coast Guard behind me, I wouldn’t give in to that.”

On much of the global ocean, however, there is often no backup. Fellow Arizonian Davies disappeared from a transhipment vessel in 2015. “He was a very fit guy: he’s not gonna slip and fall overboard. He saw something he shouldn’t have,” Brown says. “That was a warning to every observer worldwide: nobody is gonna do nothing.”

According to Henrique Ramos, a former observer who runs the seaExpert agency employing observers for Portuguese vessels in the North Atlantic, all the well-meaning statements and policies in the world won’t help observers unless there is the political will to back them up when they board hostile boats.

“If the politicians believe in the rules that they sign, there is enforcement,” he says. “In Europe if you don’t comply with the rules, you can lose your licence. People don’t disappear from EU vessels or EU fleets.”

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Nevertheless, even in Europe the job requires observers to have a complicated set of skills to preserve their own safety.

“It is in the nature of fishermen to try to fish as much as possible,” he says. “When the crew leaves the harbour, they will try to see how the observer is thinking. An observer has to be able to handle the situation.

“You have to have good social skills and a bit of hypocrisy – be nice to them but be ready to report them.”

For those fishery observers who disappear or die in the course of walking this tightrope, there is often little justice. In the weeks following Kairerua’s death, Mitchell of the APO learned of the deaths of two other Kiribati observers.

She is pushing for their deaths to be investigated, but is not optimistic for results given that there is still no internationally recognised protocol for investigating an observer’s death or disappearance.

“There should be a strict protocol,” she says. “They should close off the room, collect the CCTV, look at the data and the reports from the observer and compare it with the VMS [vessel monitoring system, a satellite tracking system] data.” Instead, she says, ships often do none of this, leaving grieving families further bereft of information.

“I can only imagine how alone they must feel to suddenly lose their husband or brother,” she says. “To not know much about the job, or what it entails. Just that it’s dangerous.”