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Missing at Sea: The Dangers Faced by Fisheries Observers

Created on Thursday, 25 May 2017

PC: Mark Garrison/Hakai Magazine

On September 10th 2015, a Taiwanese fishing vessel conducted a transshipment of tuna to the Panamanian flagged refrigerated vessel MV Victoria, roughly 500 miles off the coast of Peru. The transshipment was being observed by the MV Victoria’s U.S. fisheries observer Keith Davis. A crewman aboard the Taiwanese fishing vessel witnessed Keith Davis observing the transshipment of tuna at roughly 2:50 PM. Ten minutes later Keith Davis couldn’t be found. A search was soon conducted by the MV Victoria, which ended 72 hours later. His body was never found.

Fisheries observers are often cited as a way to verify that fishing is done both ethically and sustainably. However, the significant risk that observers put themselves in when conducting their duties is less well known. Isolated far from shore in international waters and dependent on the crew of the vessel, observers are in a particularly vulnerable positon when they witness a fishing violation that the vessel operator doesn’t want reported. As a result, observers may be pressured, harassed, threatened, or possibly assaulted by vessel operators in order to prevent them from recording illegal activity. In the face of such risks, it is often difficult for observers to act as a safeguard against unsustainable and unethical fishing.

Tragically, threats by fishing vessel operators to observers are sometimes carried out, and many have been murdered or declared missing under mysterious circumstances. The case of Keith Davis is just one of many cases of fisheries observers from around the world who have disappeared under circumstances that most experts would classify as suspicious at a minimum. Keith Davis’s death was all the more shocking as he, along with other observers, had worked tirelessly to highlight the risks that observers face in the line of duty, compiling a list of incidences of threats, assaults, and murder of fisheries observers at sea.

Even when proof exists that a fisheries observer was threatened, assaulted, or even murdered, suspects are rarely prosecuted due to the lack of laws and regulations governing crime aboard fishing vessels operating on the high seas. The case of Keith Davis is sadly no different, with jurisdiction over the disappearance eventually given to the flag state, Panama, who lacked the capacity to conduct a full investigation and concluded that the cause of the tragedy was unknown. Although the crew of the MV Victoria were replaced, none were ever charged with Keith Davis’s disappearance.

To better protect fisheries observers in the face of such threats, many are calling for reform to improve their safety. This can include an independent form of communication (such as a satellite phone) that observers can use to call for assistance, and emergency action plans that establish protocols to assist observers when they feel threatened. One Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO), the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission, has enacted some significant necessary reforms and made them mandatory as of early 2017. It is of ever greater importance for all RFMO’s to follow suit and to enact further reforms to protect fisheries observers at sea. Only then can fisheries observers truly fulfill their role of verifying sustainable and ethical fishing, and helping to deter illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

While the highlighted case involves a U.S. fisheries observer it is important to be aware that the issue of fisheries observer safety is a global one regardless of nationality. Fishery management plans around the world should take into consideration the safety of fisheries observers and their crucial role in achieving sustainable fishing.

For more information about this event, please read the article “The Mysterious Disappearance of Keith Davis.”

To learn more about reforms that can improve observer safety, see the “Association for Professional Observer’s International Observer Bill of Rights.”