Fisheries Observers Told to Turn Blind Eye to Violations
Shark Finning, Pollution and Safety Complaints Trigger Reprisal, Not Enforcement
Washington, DC — Independent monitors of U.S. fishing fleets are discouraged from reporting violations by the very federal agency which commissions them, according to a formal complaint filed today by the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Observers who complain are assigned to unsafe vessels as “punishment trips” or simply let go without cause or appeal.
Fisheries Observers generally work for private companies under contract with National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service or NMFS. They monitor catch composition of commercial fisheries and their compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and protections for whales, dolphins and sea turtles, among other regulations.
Observers who witness fisheries violations, such as shark-finning (taking fins off live sharks and then discarding the mutilated animal), marine pollution (MARPOL), and shooting seabirds have been told that these violations were not of interest to the Southeast Region of NMFS. According to witnesses, one NMFS official from the Pelagic Observer Program, managed by the Southeast region of NMFS, said, “if you have a problem with MARPOL violations, you better get out of the program now,” adding that it was just the “culture of the fishermen” and that Observers should just accept that.
Observers are also specifically instructed to enter violations into their field diaries but not into official logs. As a result, violations are not pursued. The groups’ complaint asks the Commerce Department’s Inspector General to investigate conditions with the Southeast NMFS Observer Programs. The area covered by this region is immense and sometimes overlaps with the Northeast programs – from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, south to Brazil.
“Fisheries Observers are like referees instructed to swallow their whistles, no matter how flagrant the foul,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “NOAA appears to be under acute political pressure to make sure fishing fleets are not inconvenienced by compliance with marine protection laws.”
Observers have scant legal protection against official retaliation, however. Jonathan Combs, who worked as an Observer in the Southeast NMFS programs since 2006, was summarily fired in July after raising compliance questions in an e-mail to NMFS. In a November 18, 2011 statement, he describes how NMFS refuses to enforce safety requirements on vessels carrying Observers. Nor, according to Combs and his colleagues, will the agency ensure that vessels provide accommodations for Observers. Observers are sometimes forced to sleep at the galley table or on the floor, while crewmembers all have bunks.
“Observers are vulnerable to harassment, assault, intimidation and interference for simply trying to do their job, not to mention the difficulties of collecting biological data at sea, often on small boats under extreme conditions,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers. “Most Observers are not guaranteed work, so they are especially vulnerable to reprisal without effective recourse.”
The groups are asking the Inspector General to 1) survey current and freshly separated Observers to gauge prevalence of reported conditions; 2) audit filed diaries against logbooks to measure underreporting of violations; 3) analyze NMFS enforcement of ship safety and accommodations requirements, as well as gender equality rules; and 4) recommend steps needed to protect whistleblowers in the Observer ranks.