The protection of fisheries observers is a critical requirement for assuring sustainable fisheries around the world on a scientific basis. But, not all observers are adequately protected by their employers, including those working within the European Union's maritime coverage.

Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) and the Association of Professional Observers (APO), today issue the latest advocacy publication and report focusing on raising public, regional and international awareness around fisheries observer’s safety, security and wellbeing and associated fundamental individual protections required while working at sea. 

This work is supported by the Sustainable Fisheries and Community Trust, Blue Marine Foundation, CHIRP Maritime, APOCM and the International Pole and Line Foundation.

The current state of affairs is dangerous to both observer safety and the sustainable management of fisheries.

This independent report has been socialised with the European Commission through DG MARE, civil society organisations and crucially, has been contributed to by multiple EU-based observers, managers and professional associations. DG MARE has voluntarily provided comment which is embedded in the report.

The report has been triggered by a confirmed April 2023 at-sea incident of alleged harassment and subsequent evacuation of a Portuguese fisheries observer from a Portuguese fishing vessel operating in the North Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) regulatory area.

It further takes account of a past 2021 incident whereby another Portuguese observer was evacuated from a NAFO Portuguese-flagged fishing vessel for reported infringement relating to instances of interference and intimidation on board. 

The third and most recent incident involves the ongoing investigation into the unexplained death at sea of another Portuguese observer in June 2023 on a Portuguese-flagged vessel fishing off the coast of Argentina and operating out of the port of Montevideo, Uruguay. At the time of writing, DG MARE have stated in response to this incident that, "DG MARE services reported that, pending the outcome of the investigation on this fatal incident, the flag Member State authorities have clarified to DG MARE that the observer was a scientific observer without control tasks, and were not aware of threats to the observer". This incident remains under investigation at state and EU level.

These three incidents reinforce civil society and observer association concerns around observer safety, security and wellbeing. This has triggered the issuing of urgent recommendations in the report to be considered and acted upon by state, regional and global Regional Fisheries Management Organisation (RFMO) authorities.

Observer Vulnerability

Observers often experience a high level of vulnerability to multiple forms of harassment in their role because of the job they do in what is a unique work environment that is mostly out of sight and direct access to land-based scrutiny. 

They face challenging scenarios, such as monitoring commercial catches with often high financial values, working aboard vessels undertaking Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities, and often facing direct pressure and/or threats to verify unlawful catches.

Further issues raised include reliable and independent satellite communications and the means of sending an emergency location signal independent of the vessel’s communication means and the professional recognition of observers.

General Issues of Concern for Fisheries Observers Worldwide

Looking wider, the report further expands to look at multiple issues of concern facing observers which include:

  • Physical and sexual assault of observers and other forms of harassment
  • Retaliatory lawsuits 
  • Threats to dependants and livelihoods
  • Lack of transparency around observer deaths and disappearances
  • Lack of consequences for threats to observers
  • Lack of independent means of communication
  • Lack of recognition as a Maritime professional
  • Lack of public access to observer data, including observer harassment data
  • Lack of agency response to the needs of grieving dependants of deceased observers
  • Impact on fisheries observers’ safety, health and welfare
  1. Transparent Public Reporting. All cases of all forms of individual abuse, including, but not limited to harassment and observer mortalities (explained and/or unexplained) must be transparently reported. This includes the ongoing study of the trends in observer harassment to identify the sources.
    (companies, fisheries, regions and whether associated with reporting of IUU activities or not).
  2. Two-way Communication Devices. Assured provision at all times of personal two-way communications devices that are fully working, including the capacity to emit an SOS emergency signal with their location.
  3. Professionalisation. Professionalisation of the role of fisheries observer with recognition by the ILO via an amendment to ILO C188.
  4. RFMO Contracts. Observer providers contract directly with the RFMO rather than with the fishing company.
  5. Litigation Indemnity. Observers must be indemnified from litigation by fishing companies.
  6. Guaranteed Confidentiality. Observer providers and agencies must have guarantees of confidentiality of observers’ personal information. All communications from the fishing company or vessel personnel must go through the observer provider or the agency.
  7. Assured Agency Transparency with Dependants of Observers. In the event of an observer's death or disappearance, agencies and observer providers must prioritize providing the dependants with transparent immediate basic information about the circumstances involved in the death of their loved ones, such as basic observer program information and duties of the observer. Further, this must include all communications from the observer while on the vessel, agency/observer provider responses, medical treatment response on board, details of any investigation, autopsy reports without delay, and accurate certificates of death.

Liz Mitchel of the Association for Professional Observers said: "Observers are public servants charged with monitoring public marine resources. Observer harassment is often directly related to what the observer is reporting and thus the circumstances surrounding these incidents are of public interest, especially if the observer dies. The public has a right to know when and under what circumstances the observers were prevented from doing their job. Trends should be studied to ferret out their source. This would enable precious resources to focus on needed areas, regions, fisheries and flag-states of vessels that have chronic harassment problems. Likewise, sustainability certifications should come with requirements of increased programme transparency, including any observer reports of pressure or bribery attempts to sign off on the vessels’ adherence to their standards. The lack of transparency of observer programs and agencies mandating observer coverage, while failing to protect them or act on their reports, is also of public interest. It is my hope that one day consumers will equate a lack of agency transparency as complicity in IUU fishing and that sustainability certifications will include standards for observer programme transparency and integrity."

Portuguese observer and APOAM member Pedro de Jesus said: "Safety and security should always be a top priority for observers. They play a crucial role in documenting events and ensuring transparency in fisheries, but their work can often put them in a dangerous situation. Mental health and psychological support should not be overlooked when considering observer safety and wellbeing. It is essential to create an environment where observers feel safe to report any threats or incidents they encounter while carrying out their duties. Establishing clear channels of communication, confidential reporting mechanisms, and robust support systems can help ensure their wellbeing. Measures should be effectively taken to provide them with proper certified training, protective equipment, and support, particularly in high-risk environments. Governments and National authorities should work together to develop and implement policies that protect observers and safeguard their rights. This includes the recognition of the Compliance and Scientific Fisheries Observer as a maritime professional and also, establishing guidelines for their safety, providing legal protections, and holding accountable those who commit acts of violence or intimidation against them."

The comment and associated opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of Human Rights at Sea.

For more information on our Access to Justice work to protect fisheries observers see our Fisheries Observer Project Page.

Photo Credit: Fernando Anido 2023

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