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It was a month into the voyage from Spain to the Ross Sea in Antartica that the captain of the fishing boat threatened to throw Liz Mitchell overboard.
In the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean, off the Falkland Islands, that would have meant certain death.
But all that Mitchell, a U.S. fisheries observer, could think of was how embarrassed she was. The captain had just screamed at her in front of his officers, because she witnessed his crew transferring fishing bait to another vessel in mid-sea.
“When that guy said that to me I was shaking, but only because I was humiliated,” Mitchell said. “At the time I didn’t take him seriously, that he could actually do that. I don’t know whether it was naiveté or just plain being stupid, but I just never believed anybody would do that to me.”
Fisheries observers face the same treacherous conditions as commercial fishermen: the risk of getting a hand caught in a winch, being knocked overboard by a rogue wave, of dying in a capsized vessel. But observers face special risks of their own — from those they watch.
It was part of Mitchell’s job to record and report conduct such as the bait transfer — a possible flag for an unregistered boat fishing illegally. She had been hired on to monitor the vessel’s movements as well as track commercial fish and protected species it caught or killed along the way.
Not long before, Mitchell had been told by a crew member that the ship she was on — a U.S.-flagged longliner — had ties to a notorious Spanish fish poacher. That made the threat of being thrown into the sea all the more salient.
Threats and intimidation are an unfortunate part of the job, said Mitchell, who is president of the Association for Professional Observers, a nonprofit that advocates for better living conditions and improved safety measures. She got her start as a fisheries observer in Alaska in 1983, and did stints all over the world, including in Hawaii. She now lives in Oregon.
“You get to see things that most people see from their living room while watching a National Geographic documentary.”
But she, and many observers, say the risk is worth the reward. As trained biologists, they see the job as a stepping stone to better careers in the field. It also provides excitement not usually found inside a laboratory.
The job attracts a specific type of person — often the same people you might see traipsing through the jungles of Thailand or doing headstands at Machu Picchu. It’s a profession for the adventurous and resilient.
Evan Casey commutes more than 3,000 miles from Montana to Honolulu to work as an observer on Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet, which targets tuna and swordfish.
Casey’s job is to count and measure the fish as they come in and document any turtles, seabirds or marine mammals that might be killed in the process. As a biologist, he also relishes the chance to see some of the rarest species on the planet.
That was the case a few years ago when he saw a short-tailed albatross. It was one of only 1,200 remaining birds of that species in the world.
“You get to see some truly amazing things out there, in terms of animal behaviors and strange fish,” Casey said. “You get to see things that most people see from their living room while watching a National Geographic documentary.”
Casey’s profession recently came into the spotlight with the disappearance of another observer, Keith Davis, off the coast of Peru.
Davis, an American, was working on a Chinese transshipment vessel that was picking up fish from another boat when he vanished. The waters were calm at the time, and there were dozens of people on board who should have noticed if he had gone over.
Many, including Casey, believe that Davis was the victim of foul play. He was an experienced observer, who was known as a student of safety and security. In fact, he helped write the book on best practices for observers.
Casey worries that his friend Davis saw something he wasn’t supposed to while aboard the vessel. It makes him think back to his own tense moments with fishermen who might have been breaking the rules.
“A lot of people don’t know we exist,” Casey said. “But our community is pretty connected all over the country and all over the world.”
Sometimes the bathroom is a five-gallon bucket. Bed bugs and cockroaches are common companions.
Working on U.S.-flagged fishing vessels is much safer than being on some international boats on the high seas where as many as three international fisheries observers have disappeared or turned up dead in recent months.
But it’s still a difficult job. Life at sea can be uncomfortable. Observers are forced to live for weeks or even months in cramped quarters with those they’re supposed to be watching.
Bunks can feel like the inside of a sarcophagus on a 60-foot longline vessel. Sometimes the bathroom is a five-gallon bucket. Bed bugs and cockroaches are common companions.
The food isn’t always good or plentiful. Some observers have even seen crew resort to eating bait when times were spare.
Lynn Rassel says there’s another concern — boredom. While there are bouts of excitement, such as when a tiger shark is hauled aboard a vessel, there can be long lulls in between. And if the crew doesn’t speak much English, Rassel, an observer living in Hawaii, says the solitude can become oppressive.
“One of the things you have to be OK with out there is the isolation,” Rassel said. “You can be out there for a really long time without talking to anyone or connecting with anyone.”
So why does she do it? Rassel, like many of her colleagues, says it’s for the freedom. Fisheries observers can make up to $200 a day working on a fishing boat while paying no rent.
That money can go toward other expenses, such as student loans or a travel fund. There’s ample time between voyages and contracts for globetrotting.
“You finish up your contract and you’re free again,” Rassel said.
Observers play an important role in managing ocean fisheries, and are typically trained as biologists. They are not law-enforcement officers and have no direct authority to levy a fine. But their work goes a long way toward documenting the the global fish stock.
Their main duties at sea are to track how many fish are caught and whether any protected species were harmed in the process. They also monitor whether the fishermen are using the proper bait and whether they dump their hazardous waste overboard.
Agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and Western Pacific Fishery Management Council use the data observers collect to manage fish populations and develop programs to limit the by-catch of sensitive species such as leatherback turtles, albatrossess and false killer whales.
In NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office, which covers Hawaii and American Samoa, about 60 fisheries observers are assigned to the region’s longline tuna and swordfish vessels. They all work for Techsea International Inc., which holds the exclusive contract for the region.
Michael Tosatto, the administrator for the Pacific Islands Regional Office, says NOAA spends about $5 million a year on the local observer program.
Fishermen, the study found, were inherently skeptical of observers because their job is to act essentially as high-seas tattletales.
While fishermen are required to report their catch numbers, he said officials suspect they don’t always get the full picture, especially if a sensitive species, such as a loggerhead turtle, gets hooked or tangled up in some fishing line. It too many turtles are killed, the longline fleet can be shut down. That means lost income.
“The observers provide, in my mind, a fair, independent and impartial assessment of what the vessel did while it was out at sea,” Tosatto said. “It’s a valuable program, and definitely worth the expense.”
But Tosatto admits that it’s not easy to keep observers on the payroll. There’s high turnover. The work itself can be taxing. It’s also considered an entry-level position.
“It’s a very difficult, demanding job,” Tosatto said. “But I love going to sea so I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Many fishermen have a less rosy view of Hawaii’s observer program. There’s a lot of mistrust between those catching the fish and those there to watch over their work.
As the Hawaii fisheries observer handbook notes:
When stepping on to a fishing vessel for one day, one week or one month, you the observer are entering a workplace and a home. It is a place where the crewmen have already established a system of communication and responsibilities … The environment can be lonely, unwelcoming, cramped, and sometimes hostile. Your sleeping and eating habits will definitely be disrupted. The quality of your working relationship with the crew can be more important to the overall nature of the trip than the nature of the vessel itself.
A 2007 study by the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center examined fishermen’s experiences with observers. The authors interviewed more than 200 people, including vessel owners, captains and crew.
More than 80 percent of those interviewed reported having some problem either with the overall program or the individual observers assigned to their boat.
Often the fishermen said the observers got in the way, and decreased fishing efficiency. Several complained about observers who wanted to haul in certain fish — in particular sharks — just so that they could be studied.
“The observer told us to bring in sharks to measure, but the captain didn’t bring one in because it was alive and too dangerous for the crew to handle,” one fisherman told the study’s authors. “On another boat, one crew member was injured while bringing in a shark for the observer. Where is the authority? It’s our risk yet we’re obligated to do what they tell us.”
Observing, by its very nature, is intrusive. Fishermen, the study found, were inherently skeptical of observers because their job is to act essentially as high-seas tattletales.
Violations reported by an observer can result in hefty federal fines for a captain and crew, resulting in a smaller profits once the fish actually go to market.
“I don’t like the concept of the program,” another fisherman said. “The observers are out to get the fishermen. They are sneaky, permitting us to do certain things in the fishing grounds and then later imposing a fine.”
Caleb McMahan knows this conflict well. He got his start as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and then moved to Hawaii, where he worked as a fisheries observer until last year. McMahan now makes documentaries that focus on the work observers do in Hawaii and elsewhere.
One of his main goals is to dispel the notion that observers and fishermen have to be at odds. He says they both have the same goal: to keep the fishery open.
“A good fisheries observer is an ambassador,” McMahan said. “Observers are not policemen … They’re there to collect data and make sure the fisheries are managed responsibly.”