The Pacific through the Forum Fisheries Agency now has over 800 observers in the region deployed on fishing vessels, mainly on purse seine vessels which have 100% coverage.
Less than 5% coverage of the smaller but more numerous longline vessels carry observers.
The men and women who do this work are some of the region’s unsung heroes.
They work alone as the eyes and ears of the Pacific’s monitoring and compliance efforts, alongside crews who may not want their activities made public. As a result observers risk harassment, intimidation and even murder.
Pacific nations made improving observer safety one of their top three priorities when they meet with the fishing powers in Nadi at the 13th session of Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC).
“The observers are playing important but far more dangerous roles than they ever have before,” Wez Norris Deputy director general of the Forum Fisheries Agency told a group of Pacific editors gathered in Nadi last week, prior to the WCPFC meeting.
“Traditionally, observer programs are science based – they are there to collect information that gets fed to the scientists for their work.
“Observers are more and more being called upon now for compliance functions as well so the information that they record is used by fisheries compliance officers in investigations and prosecutions and so on,” said Mr Norris.
Their bigger role is exposing observers to increased threats.
“It exposes them to intimidation …it also exposes them to bribery and corruption issues,” Mr Norris said
We need to take that very seriously as the information that they are collecting is absolutely essential, we rely on it very heavily.
We’ve been given very clear instruction by the Pacific Fisheries Ministers that these people need to be looked after. It’s a daunting job that they do and it’s very valuable to us.” Mr Norris said.
The issue came to a head in the WCPFC last year as a result of serious incidents including murder of two observers from Papua New Guinea.
We have pushed through quite a bit of reform throughout the year,” Mr Norris said.
If they get word from their observers that there’s a particular issue on a boat, they ..(have) a range of responses from simply liaising with the owner of the company and the master of the vessel, all the way to ordering vessels back into port immediately, disembarking observers, taking compliance action and so on,” Mr Norris explained.
“At the same time we see a very strong need for the Commission to have specific rules in place that require flag states and fishing companies to take specific actions.
“We want to make sure that we have as holistic a set of arrangements as possible.”
Both flag states and observer providers have responsibilities.
But by half way through this year’s WCPFC meeting Mr Norris was frustrated,
“While everyone at least on the surface remain committed to making sure we lift the standards within WCPFC, we have seen some quite concerted efforts to do what we would consider to be shifting responsibility from flag states onto Observer providers.” He told journalists.
“And that sort of goes right against the whole point of why we’re having this discussion. We’re having this discussion because this time last year we said “here’s what we’re going to do to reform our practices as Observer providers but we also want to lift the responsibility of Flag States”.
“So it’s very frustrating for members now to face the case where some of these responsibilities are trying to be shifted back to them,” the FFA’s Deputy DG said.
Speaking to the Pacific Media yesterday, Mr Norris said there was even a proposal by Japan to change the requirement insurance cover for Observers.
“So the rule that’s been in there for this commission since 2007, is that the vessel operator has to make sure that there is insurance coverage for the observer.
“The proposal last night (Wednesday night) is to shift that from observer to the provider.
“That’s an interesting one as we’re interested in doing exactly that.
“But the fact that it came up with the stroke of a pen would change 8 years’ worth of practice was quite worrying to us..
The Deputy DG said a great concern for them at the moment is how some countries now starting to question whether or not they have the legal authority to order boats back to port under certain circumstances (such as severe risk to observer safety)
“And that’s concerning for us because that the whole focus of this measure was so that if there were incidences then there would be strong responses.
“And also consistent responses between Observer providers and Flag states,” he added.
According to Mr Norris, the work on negotiating the Observer Safety Measure has continued on yesterday where the Chair released a new revised draft that was being negotiated late through the evening.
The full outcome of the commission and the negotiations will be heard, by today.
By RONALD TOITO’ONA
In Nadi, Fiji