Data loading...

Onboard Tuna Observers Reporting Physical And Verbal Abuse

As the Marshall Islands and other islands ramp up recruitment and training of fisheries observers, the number of reports by observers claiming verbal and physical abuse aboard fishing boats has escalated.

“We have received observer reports and counter reports from the vessels,” said Marshalls Fisheries Director Glen Joseph.

The more than 200 purse-seine vessels operating in the western Pacific are now required by the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) to have an observer on board. The observers are trained to collect fisheries catch data and monitor operations of these vessels that haul in tuna worth USD 3 billion annually.

A group of about a dozen new Marshall Islands observers graduated from a recent course, and Joseph is scheduling another training later this year in a bid to eventually increase the number of trained observers in the Marshall Islands to 100.

Marshalls Fisheries Director Glen Joseph

Joseph promotes these training programs to young men and women the completion of which will virtually guarantee them a job because of the demand for observers to meet new fisheries management requirements set by PNA.

Joseph views the rise in complaints from observers and from tuna purse seiner vessels as normal growing pains in a relatively new system. The number of observers has tripled in the last five years, Joseph said.

His department takes all complaints seriously and investigates, he said. In light of the many new observers who have little practical experience, Joseph acknowledges that it could be the observers who are at fault. With many newly minted observers making only their first or second trips on vessels, the opportunity for misunderstandings or problems is obvious in the high-pressure environment of a commercial fishing vessel, he said.
Complaints of abuse against an observer related to a Taiwan and an American vessel are currently being investigated, he said. Everyone takes reports of abuse submitted by observers seriously, he said. “When a case (problem) is reported, Tion (Nabau, the fisheries department’s attorney) looks into it,” said Joseph. The fishing companies pay a lot of attention to any complaint filed by an observer. “It puts a spotlight on our observers,” he said. “Fishing companies fly their lawyers in to take depositions from the observers.”
“On the positive side, observers are here to stay and are an integral part of purse-seine fishing operations,” Joseph said. “They can’t go out without fuel or an observer on board.”

“On the negative side, because they are an integral part of the operation, the bservers are part of the environment on vessels — it’s not an easy environment especially when they are in hot pursuit (of a school of tuna).”

There are a range of factors that can lead to misunderstandings on a vessel at sea, and many observers being new have to acclimatize themselves to the ways of a commercial fishing vessel.

On top of this, fishermen tend to be superstitious and fishing masters or captains may not want to have a new and untested observer on board, which can cause issues from the outset of a voyage. “If they have a bad fishing trip and don’t catch many fish, they may blame the observer,” he said.

On the flip side of this, some experienced observers — including female observers — are in demand by the fishing masters. “If they are good observers, the captains ask for them to come back,” Joseph said. Some Marshall observers are in such demand that they rarely touch down for more than a couple of days in port. This causes a different kind of challenge for Joseph’s office. “We need to get their reports and de-brief them after each voyage,” Joseph said. “If they make three trips in a row, the data gets old.”

The bottom line for Joseph as he promotes fisheries observers as a career track is the safety of their staff. “From our point of view, the safety of the observers is the foremost consideration,” Joseph said. Observers are provided at the request of vessels to meet the 100 percent coverage requirements of the PNA and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission. The onus is on the fishing companies to look after the observers, Joseph said. “We expect all safety to be looked after by the fishing companies,” he said. “They should not physically or emotionally abuse the observers.”

There is a huge demand for observers and with only 30 trained observers in its stable, the Marshalls cannot always supply an observer for purse seiners. “It’s an economic opportunity for us,” he said, adding that Papua New Guinea alone has over 300 observers working on vessels in the region and globally. The Marshalls is “on track to have 50 observers by the end of 2013,” he said.