Onboard Tuna Fishery Observers: heroes of the seas

Posted on November, 21 2015

On September 10th, in calm seas and broad daylight, marine biologist Keith Davis disappeared at sea while working as a fisheries observer in MRAG Americas’ IATTC Transshipment Observer Programme. There is no trace of Keith as of this writing. Keith was a friend.
On September 10th, in calm seas and broad daylight, marine biologist Keith Davis disappeared at sea while working as a fisheries observer in MRAG Americas’ IATTC Transshipment Observer Programme. There is no trace of Keith as of this writing. Keith was a friend.  

Keith Davis was deployed on the M/V Victoria No.168, a Japanese-owned carrier under Panamanian flag that was, at the time, transshipping from the F/V Chung Kuo No. 818, a Taiwanese vessel under a Vanuatu flag. The vessel’s location at the time Keith was reported missing was in international waters about 500 miles west of Lima, Peru.
Observers: working on the front line of scientific research
Fisheries observers are, first and foremost, scientists. Like all good scientists, their job is to observe, measure, assess, and report the things that they see while stationed on fishing vessels. In short, observers represent a critical feature of the scientific system that allows us to understand the health of our fish populations as well as our oceans.
People like Keith are so important. They serve as the front line of scientific research used to ensure the sustainability of our fisheries and the health of our oceans.  They may go out for months at a time in a hostile environment in an effort to carry out this work.  In my view, observers, being willing to put themselves in harms way to serve humanity by helping us understand and protect our oceans, are nothing short of heroes.
They also play a crucial role, ensuring that rules and regulations on the high seas are correctly implemented. Fisheries observers are not “policemen” but they document everything that happens on the ship and have an obligation to report any violations. In this sense, observers are the “eyes and ears” of our enforcement agencies charged with protecting our ocean resources.
Observers: guardians over our fish resources
Keith was taking part in the Transshipment Observer Programme. A “transshipment observer” is someone who serves on board, or otherwise in association with, a transshipment or “carrier” vessel, which are much larger than the average fishing vessel. Mostly, they receive fish from smaller fishing vessels, such as longliners, that have filled their cargo holds, but choose to continue fishing. The carrier vessels may receive fish from several smaller vessels before filling their hold and going back to port.  In order for managers to understand how much fish is being harvested so that fish populations are not overexploited, transhipment observers records are compared to the records of the delivering vessels to see “if the numbers add up.” So, in a sense, transhippment observers fill an important role as guardians over our fish resources by monitoring the “hubs” where fish are transferred.
I had just spoken with Keith over the phone in July not long before he left on this trip. We specifically discussed ways to improve the safety and security of fisheries observers.  He was passionate about his work and was always an outspoken and forceful advocate for observers, both independently and through membership in the Association for Professional Observers (APO). He helped write and shepherd the International Observer Bill of Rights, designed to set the standard for keeping observers safe at sea. He had always been dedicated to his job and often mentored others in the observer community.
Not an isolated incident
Tragically, it´s not the first time this has happened.  Most observers never experience any kind of assault, but every observer who has been doing it for very long has a story of being threatened or harassed at some point.
On March 29th, 2010, Charlie Lasisi, an observer on a tuna fishing vessel employed by the National Fisheries Authority of Papua New Guinea disappeared. The body was never recovered and, after what can only be described as a kangaroo court, the six Filipino crew are now free men with the charges against them dismissed.  More disturbingly, since it happened, every official record and website has had the incident erased.   Charlie never got the recognition and justice he deserved, nor have the multiple African observers reported to have disappeared at sea or the more recent reports of yet another observer from Papua New Guinea, Wesley Talia, who disappeared under suspicious circumstances received. 
I have seen very few officially documented cases yet of observers being harassed, threatened, intimidated, and, in rare cases, assaulted or even murdered. There are many reasons why this information is not recorded. Sometimes, observers feel that they cannot risk their employment by making claims, regardless of their severity. In the worst case, when observers see a violation or experience a threat, they are reluctant to state that event occurred publicly or officially because not only do they wish to keep their jobs, they don't want to jeopardize their personal safety on future trips in a limited pool of vessels. 
No body, no crime
Disturbingly, in every instance where a crewmember or observer has gone missing under suspicious circumstances there is a progression of claims by the vessel (master/captain/crew) that attempts to shift blame to the observer. Most often, a simple accident is blamed.  Unfortunately, if there is no body, then there is no way to prove otherwise. This automatically puts any investigation at a disadvantage, as circumstantial evidence will only get you so far. 
This is the reality that many observers face and why no expense should be spared in securing their health, safety, and welfare.  Observers play too important a role in the management of our world’s fisheries and protection of our marine resources not to receive absolute protections. 
Charlie Lasisi, Keith Davis and Wesley Talia are only three among several recent incidents, including two additional incidents that have occurred in Papua New Guinea – not to mention countless accounts of missing crewmembers.  This MUST END NOW!  Charlie, Keith, and all other missing observers, as well as all observers still risking their lives every day, deserve better.
Safety and security of observers at sea must be guaranteed
The situation of observers at sea MUST be improved immediately: Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMO´s) should urgently adopt procedures to ensure their health and safety and start to implement the International Observer Bill of Rights, and their member states should be required to report any event involving threats, intimidation, harassment and assaults, not to mention any disappearance of observers or crew members!
By Alfred “Bubba” Cook, Western Central Pacific Ocean Tuna Programme Manager, WWF Smart Fishing Initiative. Email: acook@wwf.panda.org
tuna fish landing from longliner vessel, Benoa, Indonesia
© WWF Jürgen Freund
Fishery observer Keith Davis
© Keith Davis