Open Season on Harassing Fisheries Observers
Assaults More than Double in Two Years with No Reported Enforcement
Washington, DC — Attacks against independent monitors of U.S. fishing fleets more than doubled between 2013 and 2015, according to official figures posted today by the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last year, despite a record number of such assaults, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took no enforcement action in any case and more than half remain in “open” status – many for months.
Professional Fisheries Observers accompany commercial fishing vessels to monitor compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting dolphins, whales, seabirds, and sea turtles. Approximately 700 observers monitor fleets in 47 different fisheries in U.S. waters, logging some 77,000 days at sea each year. Many are female and face particular challenges from all-male fishing crews on long voyages.
The latest figures from NOAA indicate that –
- The number of observer harassment cases more than doubled from 2013 to 2015, from 35 to 84 reported cases. Several vessels had repeat incidents, some hours, days or months apart;
- In 2015, NOAA reported no enforcement actions against alleged perpetrators. Most cases (49) remained unresolved, even months after their occurrence. Many were closed with only warnings while two were handled under the acronym “COPPS” or Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving which NOAA classifies as “constituent outreach and communication”; and
- The trend of incidents has been steadily going up, doubling between 2007 and 2011, and redoubling from then until 2015.
“For Fisheries Observers, NOAA means ‘No Assistance Available’ because they can expect no support if they are attacked or prevented from doing their jobs,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “NOAA views the fleets as its constituents and these independent monitors as necessary inconveniences.”
In response to earlier complaints filed by APO and PEER concerning interference with observers, unsafe conditions, and harassment, NOAA promised to deliver reformed procedures. But the final package of measures unveiled in 2014 is weak, relying on voluntary compliance by fleets with no independent recourse for observers or formal follow-up role for NOAA.
These steadily rising harassment numbers may also reflect mounting opposition by fleets to the costs of paying for observer services. NOAA has funded studies on electronic replacements for human monitoring but those automated alternatives are not yet ready for deployment.
“Three observers have been murdered in recent years, including my colleague, Keith Davis,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers, noting that this death occurred in international waters where there are even less protections for observers. “Rather than enforcing observer protections, NOAA has joined with the fishing industry in a push to replace observers with cameras despite the absence of any reliability or accountability controls.”