Washington, DC —Attacks and threats against government observers monitoring commercial fishing fleets increased by almost 50% above those reported last year, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). These latest numbers continue a sharp rise in reported incidents in recent years – nearly doubling in 2005 and tripling from the 2004 level.
The approximately 700 professional observers accompany commercial fishing vessels in 42 different fisheries, logging an estimated 60,000 days at sea. They are the only independent monitor of industry compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting dolphins, whales and sea turtles. Observers work either directly or indirectly under contract with the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
According to the 2006 figures obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act –
- The number of reported cases by observers of harassment, attack or intimidation was 73 in 2006, a substantial jump over the 50 such cases in 2005 and the 26 in 2004;
- In only one case was a violation prosecuted. In the vast majority of cases, NOAA took no enforcement action, and when it did, a warning was the most frequent sanction; and
- The NOAA Office of General Counsel either rejected or sat on several cases without action.
“These numbers indicate that more than one in ten observers is reporting a sexual assault or other intimidation on the high seas,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that many of the observers are females long voyages with foreign crews that have different perceptions of the roles of women. “Being a fishing observer is a tough job but it is a lot tougher if no one is watching your back.”
These latest figures were produced only after an odd change in posture by NOAA. In a letter dated June 28, 2007, NOAA rejected a Freedom of Information Act request from PEER because “no documents were found that are responsive to your request.” Then in a September 20, 2007 letter, NOAA stated that a new search was being conducted. Finally, by letter dated October 11, the agency transmitted a “summary of all incidents of violence, threats or harassment against professional observers, including both NOAA employees and government contractors that occurred between January 1 and December 31, 2006.”
“Other than suggesting that there may be ‘better reporting,’ NOAA officials are unable to offer any comment on or explanation for this steady increase in incidents,” Ruch added, noting that in a conference call yesterday, NOAA officials assured PEER that observer safety was the agency’s “number one priority.” “NOAA does not appear to be aware of trends occurring with its people or particularly concerned about the very low number of cases being prosecuted.”