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Monday, February 24, 2020

Q & A: Chris Ewell ’22 on Protecting Fisheries Observers on the High Seas

In international waters, observers onboard fishing boats are tasked with monitoring fishing activity, reporting human rights violations, and blowing the whistle on prohibited environmental practices like illegal dumping or quota violations. But those observers themselves lack sufficient protections, according to a new analysis in Marine Policy led by Law, Ethics and Animals Program (LEAP) Student Fellow Chris Ewell ’22. Ewell coauthored the article with NYU colleagues, the nonprofit Greenpeace, and the Association of Professional Observers.

On the occasion of the article’s publication, we asked Ewell a few questions about his research and why mandating comprehensive and transparent monitoring coverage onboard fishing vessels can ensure better protections for humans, animals and marine ecosystems alike. Read Ewell’s article in full here.

There are an estimated 2,500 independent observers aboard fishing vessels. What role do these human observers play?

Chris EwellHuman observers are “eyes” onboard fishing vessels that collect the scientific data used to determine fish stock health. They may also report on compliance with other rules, such as catch and gear restrictions, bycatch policies, and interactions with marine mammals and seabirds. Without these data, fisheries managers would not be able to set accurate target quotas or catch restrictions to ensure the sustainability of a fishery. Observers have also collected specimens and biological data from bycatch and nontarget species that would have otherwise been completely lost to science, like cold-water corals and other marine invertebrates.

Most often, observers work alone and alongside fishermen at sea but also conduct duties in port. There are an estimated 2,500 observers worldwide, but there are 2.9 million motorized fishing vessels, an estimated nearly 40,000 of which are factory trawlers, so this demonstrates how little the oceans resources are currently being monitored. Our analyses looked at policies related to compliance monitoring duties and observer safety in 17 Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), which are responsible for managing fisheries on the high seas beyond national jurisdiction and straddling high seas boundaries.

What risks do these fisheries observers face? What trends did you find in observer reports?

Fisheries observers have been subject to rights and safety violations while onboard fishing vessels, and these risks are especially serious on the high seas where they are far from ports or their home countries. There are unsettling reports of observer disappearances and deaths after likely witnessing of illegal fishing activities, and we reported on seven disappearances at sea that have occurred on the high seas over the last decade. In a particularly gruesome case reported by the Association for Professional Observers and Patricia Kailola of Pacific Dialogue, Ltd., the Papua New Guinean observer Charlie Lasisi’s remains were found bound in chains following his disappearance from his vessel assignment. He had reported fisheries violations prior to his disappearance. A Fijian observer also reported being subject to physical intimidation and employment termination after he reportedly refused to falsify discard reports at the behest of a vessel’s captain. Observers in the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) have reported similar requests by crewmembers to not report conservation measure violations.

Anecdotally, it is known that there is significant underreporting of observer harassment and that some avoid reporting violations because they believe it might endanger them. Observers have expressed a lack of agency and employer support and control of the vessels, including inadequate enforcement follow-up but also that their program is unresponsive to their reports. It is difficult to measure trends in safety and rights violations because most RFMOs do not require reporting of safety violations and are not transparent about processes if such violations occur. We highlight in our paper that reports of safety violations in the WCPFC have declined in the years following mandated processes for observer safety protections, but even these WCPFC processes are not fully transparent and there is little program oversight. Observers in many instances take on big risks in providing the invaluable data that fisheries managers require to successfully manage fish populations, and rights and safety protections need to be ensured for these individuals.

The study you led is the first to compare existing at-sea compliance monitoring and observer programs for Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs), the main institutions that manage fishing on the high seas and high seas boundaries. Tell us about some of the gaps and shortcomings you uncovered.

We reviewed at-sea compliance monitoring and observer programs in the 17 RFMOs that exist to manage fishing on the high seas and high seas boundaries, and our results showed large inconsistencies and overall inadequacies in these policies across all RFMOs.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a lack of transparency and public access to the information needed to analyze program effectiveness, especially compliance information. Much of the high seas fishing fleet is kept afloat through public subsidies and public funds, and it necessary to ensure that fishing activities are managed in the public interest. If an observer is getting harassed or interfered with and these acts have no consequence to the vessel, the program is not effective. None of the 17 RFMOs include sufficient rights and safety protections for observers, such as specific policies on wages, leave, or guaranteed time at shore, and only four RFMOs have a specific process if an observer disappears or dies. Moreover, only three RFMOs require that 100 percent of fishing vessels carry observers. Also, none of the RFMOs are utilizing observers to report compliance to the extent possible. Only four RFMOs require observer compliance reports with waste, fishing gear disposal, and pollution policies, despite reports that fishing nets and gear make up a large percentage of ocean plastics harming marine wildlife and ecosystems, and only five RFMOs require reporting of sightings of illegal fishing vessels, despite the great ecological and economic harms that illegal fishing causes.

We also highlight that there have been increasing efforts in recent years to test and install Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) camera technologies on fishing vessels, that can act as a kind of electronic observer that monitors compliance with regulatory measures. However, no RFMOs have implemented comprehensive plans to mandate or manage these new technologies, such as assurances that these technologies will not be used as tools for increased nontransparent industry self-monitoring.

You call for specific policy changes to address these inadequacies. What could be done to better protect fisheries observers and to better ensure effect at-sea monitoring to protect animals and the environment? Are the protection of human observers at sea and the protection of marine animals intertwined?

At-sea monitoring and observer programs have to be improved across all RFMOs. The protection of human observers at sea and the protection of marine animals are absolutely intertwined. When protections of marine animals and rules around fishing in general are stricter, the need for observers is even greater, and yet observers are likely to be at greater risk under this scenario. Aquatic animals and fisheries observers are paying the cost of illegal fishing activities. Our policy proposal includes the integration of the International Observer Bill of Rights into RFMO policies, ensuring stronger observer rights and safety protections, while RFMOs also mandate 100 percent observer coverage on fishing vessels using a combined human observer and REM model. REM systems can record important information for conservation, but observers onboard can help ensure that these systems are functioning properly and are not being tampered with. The improvements to observer and at-sea compliance policies that we suggest will help ensure that both the rights and safety of observers and the health of fish populations are better protected on the high seas for the public benefit.