The murder of neutral observers aboard fishing boats in the Pacific is one of the most under-reported issues in the $US6billion Pacific tuna fishing industry.
Few people are aware that fisheries observers have died on the high seas while attempting to guarantee the sustainability of fish stocks, reports Netani Rika, at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission meeting that concludes in Bali today.
Observers have experienced intimidation, threats harassment, in some cases assault on board vessels fishing in the region. In the most extreme cases observers have gone missing.
In September United States national, Keith Davis, disappeared from the Victoria 168 off the Peru coast after taking on a shipment of fish from the Vanuatu-flagged Taiwanese boat Chung Kuo No 818.
Bubba Cook, the World Wildlife Fund’s Western Central Pacific Ocean Tuna Programme Manager, said the tuna industry actively covered up these incidents.
“They try to keep those stories, you know, in-house because they know that no one will want to buy tuna that people die to produce," he said.
A major search operation was conducted by United States and Peruvian Coast Guard after Davis disappeared. He was never found.
But Cook suggested that the extent of the search and the assets used would not have been the same if Davis had been a Pacific islander.
At least two Papua New Guinean observers have been murdered at sea and the WWF will push for measures to ensure the safety of fisheries observers working on fishing vessels.
“Within the last five years there's been at least three observers from Papua New Guinea who have gone missing,” Cook said.
Charlie Lasisi was murdered by six Filipino crew members on the Dolores 838 in the Bismarck Sea in March 2010.
His body was found bound in chains and the crew members faced trial but were acquitted by a Papua New Guinea court. Ironically, Lasisi was employed as an observer by the PNG Fisheries Department.
His compatriot, Wesley Talia, also died in suspicious circumstances while posted as an observer on board a foreign fishing vessel in the Pacific.
There is no evidence that the families of Lasisi or Talia have been compensated for their loss.
Pacific tuna nations gathered in Bali for two weeks of discussion for the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, which met December 3-8.
Very few Pacific nations provide data on fisheries observers, conditions aboard fishing vessels or incidents in which these monitors are injured, disappear or die.
Cook said observers had come under increasing threats from the fishing industry in recent years.
“In many cases the observers aren’t very welcome on board. They are viewed as taking up space, unnecessary, as a potential threat because they do serve a compliance purpose,” he said.
“They identify any activities that might be considered illegal so it puts them immediately at risk because they are viewed as being in opposition, in many cases by the fishermen.”
This situation, Cook said, was unfortunate because the observers had huge potential to ensure that the fishing industry remained viable well into the future.
“The fishermen should view them as an important tool, as an important part of the process because the observers are the ones providing the information to ensure that the fishery is sustainable for everyone,” he said.
“Unfortunately that is not the case. So as a result of that dynamic over a number of years we have seen increased complaints from a number of observers as to the way they’ve been treated.
“They have experienced intimidation, threats harassment, in some cases assault on board vessels fishing in the region. In the most extreme cases observers have gone missing.”
The WWF will attempt to address the issue of observer safety at a plenary of the WCPFC this week and looked at the possibility of providing the observers with communications equipment which is independent of on-board radio.
Industry insiders have said that communications equipment aboard most vessels is controlled by the captain and because of this observers are sometimes reluctant to make incriminating reports.
Observers are the eyes and ears of the management agencies on the ocean and needed technical support from all parties involved in the industry, Cook said.
“They provide a critical role in monitoring and controlling the fisheries in terms of the information that they provide is both used for management as well as compliance purposes and they form the backbone of the science that comes into the management process that ultimately determines how the stocks are managed and whether they are managed sustainably.”
Meanwhile, Patricia Kailoa, Acting Chief Executive Officer of Pacific Dialogue, told a regional tuna meeting in September that despite the size of the regional fishing industry, there were few published observations about working conditions.
“The remarkable feature of all of these reports, is that not one of them reports on, or refers to (beyond a mention), crew conditions in the Pacific Islands region – home to the largest tuna fishery in the world and perhaps, the world’s largest high seas fishing fleet,” she said.