- Special Projects
U.S. and international authorities are investigating the disappearance of Keith Davis, an American marine biologist who vanished earlier this month while working on a Panamanian-flagged fishing vessel 500 miles off the coast of Peru.
Davis, who has ties to Hawaii, was working as a contract fisheries observer for MRAG Americas. His job was to count fish and record other scientific data about threatened and endangered marine life encountered on the high seas, such as the bycatch of dolphins, turtles and seabirds.
But Davis was also supposed to report any violations of fishing regulations or other laws while embedded on the vessel, an oversight task that can lead to friction between an embedded observer and a ship’s captain or crew.
Now, family and friends in the tight-knit community of fisheries observers worry that whatever happened to him was not an accident. They are urging authorities to dig deeper into what might have transpired aboard the fishing boat.
Davis was last seen Sept. 10 while the ship he was on, the Victoria No. 168, was picking up a haul of tuna from a Taiwanese fishing vessel that was operating under a Vanuatu flag. After he was reported missing, the Victoria was ordered back to a port in Panama where the U.S. Coast Guard and FBI have been working with the local officials.
Since then few details have been released about the circumstances of Davis’ disappearance. The lack of information and conflicting reports have frustrated Davis’ family and friends, some of whom have publicly criticized those involved in the investigation.
Davis’ cousin, Melanie Fletcher, told CNN last week that the family was told he might have fallen and hit his head, but also said that the story has since changed. Now it seems no one has a definitive answer about Davis or his whereabouts.
“He’s not the type of guy who’s just going to fall off a boat,” Fletcher said in an interview with the news agency. “He’s the type of guy who watches to make sure no one else does. He’s a very smart, resourceful, MacGyver-type guy.”
Davis began his career as a fisheries observer in 1999. He worked in several locations, including Hawaii, Alaska and in the northeastern U.S. He also worked internationally for the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission and was a top official of the Association for Professional Observers.
His most recent assignment was for MRAG Americas, a private company that contracts with agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to oversee fishing fleets and ensure compliance with various regulations.
Davis, who grew up in Massachusetts and lived in Arizona, was well-liked and highly regarded in the close-knit and far-reaching community of fisheries observers.
When news of his disappearance began to percolate the Internet, they took to Facebook and Twitter in an attempt make sense of what might have happened to him, many of them using the hashtag #FindKeithDavis.
In Hawaii last week, a group of about 20 observers who knew Davis held a memorial service at Magic Island on Oahu to remember their missing colleague.
But what’s been difficult for many of these observers to understand is how someone who spent nearly 16 years on the water and is considered an expert in his field could simply vanish during a daytime transshipment of fish from one boat to another.
“The safety of observers is most important, and it was most important for Keith,” said Stacey Gray, a former MRAG employee who bunked with Davis and other observers in Hawaii. “Keith worked really hard to improve the quality of life for the observers on the fishing boats and to get them more rights.”
Harassment, threats and intimidation are commonplace in the life of an observer, whether in the U.S. or on a foreign vessel.
Commercial fishing is a dangerous job that involves being out at sea for long periods of time in all sorts of conditions. There’s also room for error when working with the heavy machinery found on fishing vessels. Observers face the same perils and pitfalls, and have been injured and even killed on the job.
But observers face other dangers as well. They’re assigned to track and report wrongdoing, which can put them at odds with those they’re living with on a boat in the middle of the ocean for days, weeks, even months at a time.
Gray says she once had to lock herself in a bathroom and call for help when she caught a Hawaii longliner throwing plastics overboard. She said he started threatening her after she caught him, telling her he would kill her and feed her to the sharks. When they got back to port, Gray said, he jumped ship before docking and swam away.
“It can definitely be a dangerous occupation,” she said.
According to NOAA, there are 60 observers working in the Pacific Island Regional Office that are assigned to oversee the pelagic swordfish and tuna fishing industry in Hawaii and American Samoa. Officials from the agency were unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Lynn Goodman is another friend of Davis and a former colleague who worked with him on a crab vessel in Alaska. She’s been tracking the search for Davis and recently wrote on her blog about just how dangerous being an observer can be, especially in international waters, where serious crimes, such as human trafficking and slavery, can go unseen.
Goodman highlights just how high the stakes can become for an observer that witnesses wrongdoing in lawless territory.
The job of the observer on these vessels is to monitor transfers of fish from the fishing boats, and to document any violations of the law. There are huge amounts of money at stake — particularly in the tuna industry — and an observer’s report can potentially cost a vessel quite a bit in fines, or even lead to jail time for the captain and/or crewmembers if the offense is severe.”
Moreover, sometimes the boats are packing more than tuna. Shark fins, for example, may be concealed among the fish. Shark finning is illegal, but extremely lucrative, and the trade in fins remains strong; it is estimated that 200,000 sharks are killed every day, primarily for their fins. Drugs, too, may be transported in or among fish. And these activities, if discovered, could easily put the life of an observer in danger.
Harassment, threats and intimidation are commonplace in the life of an observer, whether in the U.S. or on a foreign vessel. There are also concerns that bribery or violence will be used to keep an observer quiet.
Liz Mitchell, of the Association for Professional Observers, says combating these issues is a top priority for her organization. The APO is a nonprofit that advocates for better working conditions for those hired to watch over the world’s fisheries. It tracks workplace injuries and deaths as well as complaints from observers who have been the victims of harassment or violence.
Mitchell, who also used to work with Davis in Alaska, says intimidation is widespread in the industry, and that anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time on the water as an observer will have a story to tell.
Officials with her organization are aware of numerous cases in which observers have been punched, slapped and assaulted. There’s even one case in which an observer was chased around a ship by a crewmember wielding a meat cleaver. But often the threats are verbal, she said, with observers being told they will be thrown overboard.
“We’re very upset right now because Keith was a loved colleague and he played a big role on the part of observer rights and welfare.”
Mitchell says a lot of these incidents, however, never come to light because observers fear losing their jobs if they speak up. There is also an inherent lack of transparency within the industry and the government agencies assigned to oversee it.
She said she worked closely with Davis to improve the situation. He was a board member of the association from 2005-2012 and also served as its secretary. While there he worked with Mitchell and others to develop an international bill of rights that they hoped would help protect observers.
Now the APO supports outfitting observers with “panic buttons” and other technological equipment, such as satellite communicators, that officials hope will better protect them while out at sea.
“We’re very upset right now because Keith was a loved colleague and he played a big role on the part of observer rights and welfare,” Mitchell said. “He loved his job. He loved the ocean. And he loved the lifestyle. He wanted it to be seen as a viable professional career.”