Washington, DC — Attacks against independent monitors of U.S. fishing fleets more than doubled between 2007 and 2011, according to official figures posted today by the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In the vast majority of cases, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) took no enforcement action, and when it did, a warning was the most frequent sanction.
For nearly 40 years, professional Fisheries Observers have accompanied commercial fishing vessels to monitor compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting dolphins and other marine mammals. Today, approximately 700 professional observers monitor fleets in 47 different fisheries, logging an estimated 77,000 days at sea each year. Many are female and face particular challenges from all-male fishing crews on long, arduous voyages.
“Last month at a House Natural Resources Committee meeting, Alaska Congressmen Donald Young joked with fishermen that killing observers would solve some of their problems. But threats and harassment re no joking matters, nor are they conditions of being employed as an observer,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers, noting that in the Pacific Islands observer program, applicants are given a pamphlet which jokingly lists all the harsh conditions that observers have to face, including harassment and interference, implying that enduring these conditions is to be expected. “Harassment of observers is illegal and should not be tolerated but NOOA’s lack of response sends a different message, both to fishermen and observers.”
NMFS figures and documents indicate that –
- The number of observer harassment cases more than doubled from 2007 to 2011, from 15 to 39 reported cases. In 2011 alone, nearly one in five Fisheries Observers in service experienced some form of intimidation or obstruction;
- A very small percentage of reported cases are acted upon. In 2011, there were no reported prosecutions, although one case was dismissed on the basis that the agency lacked resources to investigate it; and
- Despite the rising numbers, NMFS has conducted no analysis or review of the causes or prevention of harassment against observers.
Observers work for private companies under contract with NOAA Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). As contract employees, observers have limited legal rights and work for companies which, in many cases, have ties to the fishing fleets they are supposed to monitor. Any violations reported by observers may result in fines or other sanctions against fleets already under sharp economic pressures.
“We believe these figures are significantly underreported as Fisheries Observers who lodge complaints often find themselves blackballed and without work,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a new NMFS report confirming the difficulties Observers experience in reporting violations. “Harassment compromises the independent oversight we depend upon to protect marine resources.” PEER has a pending information request with NMFS for its 2012 observer harassment cases.