Washington, DC — Attacks against government observers monitoring commercial fishing fleets doubled in one year, an indication of rising tensions on the high seas, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Yet even as reported incidents increase, the government agency responsible for the monitoring program has stopped keeping track of incidents.
For more than 30 years, professional observers have accompanied commercial fishing vessels to monitor compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting dolphins and other marine mammals. These observers, who work under contract to the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), are the only independent source of information for what occurs on the high seas.
The economic pressures facing commercial fishing fleets grow more intense as fishing stocks continue to decline and international competition grows fiercer. So perhaps it is not surprising that reported cases of harassment of and interference with observers is on the rise. Many of the observers are female and face particular challenges from all-male fishing crews on long, arduous voyages.
According to figures obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act –
- The number of observer harassment cases more than doubled from 2004 to 2005, capping a rising trend over the past decade. For the last year available, more than one in ten of the 500 observers in service are experiencing some form of intimidation or obstruction, according to agency records;
- Other violations reported by observers rose dramatically starting in 1999 and continued to rise through 2005; and
- In 2006, NOAA abruptly stopped collected data, writing to PEER that “no documents were found that are responsive to your request…for a summary of all incidents of violence, threats or harassment against professional observers…between January 1 and December 31, 2006.”
Agency data also indicated that in the vast majority of cases, NOAA took no enforcement action, and when it did, a warning was the most frequent sanction. Many violations were dismissed on the basis that the agency lacked resources to investigate them.
“These numbers suggest that when the going gets tough for its fishery observers, NOAA goes away,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has tracked attacks against federal resource workers ever since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. “As our oceans continue to be over-fished, the importance of supporting the corps of professional observers only grows more acute, yet NOAA appears to be in retreat.”