Policies and Recommendations to Improve the Safety of Fisheries Observers Deployed in Tuna Fisheries

Created on Wednesday, 04 April 2018

Policies and RecommendationsOn 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 observer onboard documenting the transshipment was 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 was reported missing. A search was soon conducted by the MV Victoria, which ended unsuccessfully 72 hours later. His body was never found.

Fisheries observers play a vital role in the effective management and long-term viability of fisheries, through the provision of at sea data from the vessels they serve on. Isolated far from shore in international waters and dependent on the crew of the vessel, observers are in a particularly vulnerable position when they witness a fishing violation that the vessel operator doesn’t want reported. Tragically, threats by fishing vessel operators to observers are sometimes carried out and too many have been murdered or declared missing under mysterious circumstances.

Even when proof exists that a fisheries observer was threatened, assaulted, or even murdered, suspects are rarely prosecuted due to inadequate laws and regulations governing crime aboard fishing vessels operating on the high seas. The case of Keith Davis is sadly no different. While actually working under the ausipices of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, jurisdiction over his disappearance was eventually given to the flag state, Panama, which 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.

While this 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. It also serves as a good reminder of the role companies have in implementing measures intended to protect observer safety so they can continue to fulfill their important role in fisheries management.

One Regional Fisheries Management Organization (RFMO), the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Commission, has already enacted some significant reforms and made them mandatory as of early 2017. It is of ever greater importance for all RFMOs 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 help deter illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.

However, further improvements are needed. Working in collaboration, FishWise and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently released Policies and Recommendations to Improve the Safety of Fisheries Observers Deployed in Tuna Fisheries, which summarizes existing policies that could improve observer safety and security in tuna fisheries. The document also outlines a set of recommendations for the implementation of these policies in tuna fisheries where observers operate. Our collaboration hopes that these recommendations will be helpful for both tuna fishing companies as well as NGOs guiding companies on social responsibility solutions.

To learn more about reforms that can improve observer safety, see the “Association for Professional Observer’s International Observer Bill of Rights.” For more information about the missing observer mentioned above, please read the article “The Mysterious Disappearance of Keith Davis.”

Visit our resources page to view the report (updated June 2018) and other information about socially responsible seafood.