“How many observers or crew members have to die before WPCFC takes action? … This. Must. End. Charlie, Keith, and all the other missing observers deserve better,” the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Bubba Cook told the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission at its annual meeting last month in Bali.

Charlie Lasisi, an observer from Papua New Guinea, disappeared in March 2010 while serving on a Philippine fishing vessel. Six crew members were tried for his murder. A Papua New Guinea court, however, found insufficient evidence to convict them.

Keith Davis, an American observer and Cook’s friend, disappeared last September while the Panamanian-flagged vessel he was working on was in the process of transshipping in the Eastern Pacific, which is governed by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Association. Both vessels involved also fish in the WCPFC region. An investigation is ongoing.

Keith Davis disappeared under suspicious circumstances in September while working as a fisheries observer aboard a Chinese vessel.
Keith Davis disappeared under suspicious circumstances in September while working as a fisheries observer aboard a Chinese vessel. Submitted photo

At the WCPFC meeting, a representative from Papua New Guinea, the region’s largest supplier of fisheries observers, said his government is investigating the disappearance of still other observers, but chose not to name them out of respect for their families.

For years, NGOs have been asking the commission to adopt stronger measures to protect the health and safety of the more than 600 fisheries observers in the region who record catch and scientific data and monitor compliance with the commission’s conservation and management measures.

In 2012, the Association for Professional Observers and the World Wide Fund for Nature recommended several actions the commission could take, including adopting an Observer Bill of Rights; defining the responsibilities of observer providers and setting fines for non-compliance; developing observer health, safety, and welfare standards; establishing a blacklist of captains or crew with a history of non-compliance, especially regarding observer abuse and interference; developing a system to address and prosecute observer grievances; and developing a conservation measure that would result in vessels being placed on the list of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated vessels whenever instances of bribery, threat, intimidation, assault or harassment of an observer were confirmed.

None of those suggestions were adopted.

But last December, following Davis’s recent disappearance, the commission for the first time gave the issue of observer safety its own agenda item and eventually adopted two of the WWF’s proposed measures.

“In the past there has been an assumption of ‘if there is no body, then there is no crime.’ Well, let me tell you this, from now forward, ‘if there is no body, there is no market.’” — Bubba Cook, World Wide Fund for Nature

First, as soon as possible, but no later than the end of this year, all observers aboard fishing vessels operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean must have their own two-way satellite communication devices and waterproof personal lifesaving beacons. This would easily improve, if not mostly solve, the problem of observer abuse, Cook argued in his testimony to the WCPFC’s Technical and Compliance Committee, which met shortly before the commission’s full meeting. Currently, observers are not required to have their own communication devices.

“Nothing would deter any threats, harassment, or intimidation, or certainly assault against observers faster and easier than a device that allows immediate, unfettered communication with authorities as well as ‘panic button’ and personal locator capabilities,” he wrote in testimony to the committee.

“However, the issuance of this technology is not enough in itself,” he continued. “The success of its use presumes that authorities respond quickly and assertively by contacting both the observer and the vessel directly and addressing the concern if an alert is activated.”

Under WCPFC’s rules, all purse seine vessels and 5 percent of longline vessels must have independent observers onboard. In arguing for the adoption of the measure to equip observers with communication devices, Cook told the commission that it would cost the equivalent of two good-sized market tuna per observer per year.

According to a WCPFC Secretariat paper on the measure’s estimated capital and operation costs, providing two-way texting devices and distress beacons to all 450 observers at sea at any given time would cost less than $350,000 for the first year. Over five years, the cost would be less than $800,000, which works out to about $350 per observer per year.

“I think the member states can figure out a way to pay to protect human lives at sea,” Cook told the commission, adding that it was the commission’s lack of action on observer abuse that sent a message to the fishing fleet that it can “act with impunity.”

The second measure WCPFC adopted was to require each country that provides observers to develop an emergency action plan that establishes a process by which observers can report any emergencies, including interference, harassment, intimidation and other personal safety issues.

In addition to the two explicit safety measures, the commission also adopted a new form that observers are to use to alert flag states and relevant coastal states to alleged infractions. Upon returning from fishing trips, observers must fill out a trip monitoring summary form that asks, among other things, whether the vessel operator or any crew abused or interfered with the observer.

The commission did not, however, tighten its monitoring of transshipment on the high seas, which some argue would go a long way toward increasing observer safety.

“Noting the recent tragic incident occurrence in the IATTC Convention Area on board a high seas transshipment carrier” — a reference to Davis’s disappearance — “the commission may be interested in considering the establishment of arrangements that would provide closer monitoring via the secretariat of high seas transshipment activities and the associated ROP (Regional Observer Program) observer activities,” the commission secretariat stated in a paper on observer safety.

The commission’s ROP working group had recommended adding more reporting requirements for carrier vessels operating in the WCPFC area, particularly those involved in high seas transshipments.

“Of relevance to observer safety, the proposal includes regular reporting by carrier vessels while in the Convention Area of their intended destination and activities, as well as observer details. This proposal has the potential for improving the capability of the secretariat to be monitoring … observer placements on carriers, which could assist with observer safety and security,” the paper stated.

Although the commission ultimately did not support the proposed transshipment measures, WCPFC chair Rhea Moss-Christian urged the commission to continue working to improve observer safety.

“We’re talking about our own people. Anything we can to do ensure their safety we have to do that. It’s not up for debate,” she said.

In response to a request by the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency that a conservation and management measure be drafted to guide flag-state responses to alleged observer safety incidents, Russell Smith, deputy assistant secretary for International Fisheries at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, volunteered to have the United States shoulder the task, given that the United States is both a flag state and a coastal state, as well as an observer provider. The National Marine Fisheries Service already equips many of its observers with personal locator beacons and two-way communication devices.

The Philippines also offered to help develop the CMM.

In addition to any WCPFC action, WWF’s Cook has stated that his organization is pursuing external measures to end observer disappearances, “including a market policy against any supply chain in which an observer, or a crew member, goes missing at sea.”

In testimony to the TCC, he issued a clear threat to the fishing industry: either shape up or lose your business.

“It is shameful that, at the moment, we have mechanisms in place requiring identification of ‘dolphin safe’ tuna that effectively blocks import and export of tuna in certain countries, yet we do not even have even a remotely similar measure for ‘human safe’ tuna. That is about to change. In the past there has been an assumption of ‘if there is no body, then there is no crime.’ Well, let me tell you this, from now forward, ‘if there is no body, there is no market.’ Let your captains, agents, and vessels know that if another observer — or crew member —  of ANY nationality in ANY fishery disappears, I can assure you that the market channels for that vessel, for that agent, and for any company associated with that vessel, will dry up. If you don’t believe me, TRY ME, because we’ve understandably got very strong support from both the NGO community as well as market partners on this proposal,” he wrote.

Reprinted with permission from the current issue of Environment Hawaii, a non-profit news publication. The entire issue, as well as more than 20 years of past issues, is available free to Environment Hawaii subscribers at www.environment-hawaii.org. Non-subscribers must pay $10 for a two-day pass.

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