Washington, DC — The federal agency responsible for ensuring independent monitoring of U.S. fishing fleets has agreed to review its safety procedures, training and related policies in response to complaints from Fisheries Observers filed through the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Issues to be addressed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) include the ability of observers to refuse a voyage for safety reasons, reporting drug use, access to equal accommodations, as well as creating a process for observer grievances. This review is slated to be completed by this October.
“Observers’ work is hard and dangerous enough but they have little recourse when the work is made unnecessarily or even illegally dangerous,” said Elizabeth Mitchell, President of the Association for Professional Observers. “Adding insult to injury, observers report being forced to sleep on the floor or on galley tables but have no way to enforce their right to the same accommodations as a crew member.”
While agreeing to undertake a broad review, NMFS did not concede that problems were widespread. However, the agency had a hard time convincing observers to share their experiences. Of 75 observers selected, only 12 consented to answer survey questions. Even so, some of those answers were revealing:
- One 15-year veteran observer said “when you refused a trip on safety issues [the] process is that they send another observer without checking into safety issues”;
- Another reported blackballing, ”If you didn’t take a trip you were put down the list”; and
- Several decried safety preparation, saying “It was minimal training and when a situation did come up, everything learned in training was useless.”
One bone of contention is whether observers were forced to deploy in toxic oily waters following the 2010 BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill. While NMFS denies undue pressure, one agency official advised the observer contracting company on May 24, 2010, at the height of the uncontained spill:
“…if an observer does not believe it is safe to work around the oily water, there is no contractual reason to retain that individual. It is costly to keep an observer on standby…This is not a punishment for reporting what the observer feels is a safety issue, it is just prudent to only retain those individuals who can support your program and provide the data that is badly needed.”
“Fisheries Observers who raise concerns soon find themselves out of work,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that NMFS is also reviewing how reports of resource violations, such as shark-finning, fishing in closed areas, seabird shootings and marine pollution, are handled. “This exercise made clear that the National Marine Fisheries Service has almost no direct contact with observers and not much apparent interest in the challenges they face.”
The approximately 700 professional observers who monitor commercial fisheries’ compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and protections for dolphins and sea turtles, among other regulations, are not federal employees but work for companies under contract with NMFS. Their fleet deployments often last weeks.
The APO/PEER complaint, filed back in December 2011, was directed to the Commerce Department’s Inspector General, but the IG has yet to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request on whether the matter is ongoing. The organizations do not feel that NMFS has yet to adequately resolve the issues that were raised in their complaint.