Harassment of independent observers aboard US commercial fishing vessels, and its impact on their safety and the integrity of the data they compile is again being questioned by organizations concerned about observers’ safety at sea.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, with the Association for Professional Observers, claim that attacks against observers monitoring the harvests of US fishing fleets more than doubled between 2013 and 2015, while federal officials took no enforcement action in any case and more than half remain in open status for many months.
NOAA Fisheries places observers on commercial fishing vessels under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other federal fishery and wildlife statutes, to collect scientific data required for conservation and management of living marine resources. A memorandum of agreement between NOAA Fisheries and the US Coast Guard establishes a protocol to ensure the safety and support of fisheries observers nationwide.
According to PEER and APO, NOAA reported in 2015 no enforcement actions against alleged perpetrators. Forty-nine cases 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,” PEER and APO said, in comments released in early June.
Todd DeBois, assistant director for operations at NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, in Silver Spring, MD, responded that observer cases involving safety of observers and the integrity of data are a priority for NOAA.
The reality of investigations, which often involve a complex set of circumstances, is that they do take time, he said. The fact that many of these cases are still open is pretty normal, he said.
“In Alaska, in many cases reported we had agents meet the vessel or the Coast Guard boarded at sea to assure the safety of the observer. There is a need to make sure the observer is safe, that information and evidence related to the case are collected, and we do take it seriously, he said.
DeBois also said that as the number of sea days for observers increase, his agency is working hard to be sure they support observers, to assure their safety and the integrity of the data. There are currently 77,000 sea days for observers a year, and about 30,000 to 35,000 of those days are in Alaska, he said.