Safety of fisheries observers a priority


THE issue of the safety of PNG fisheries observer’s onboard overseas tuna vessels is serious and must be addressed swiftly.
Last week, East Sepik Governor Allan Bird told Parliament that observers have gone missing on foreign vessels.
Observers are the “eyes and ears” of the sea, often working far from land for weeks or even months at a time in difficult and dangerous conditions.
In order to manage fisheries in a sustainable way, managers need information – lots of it – on how much of each species was caught, the size and age of the fish, where it was caught, how much fishing effort it took to catch the fish, and also what was thrown away or caught unintentionally – the discards and by catch levels which also impact on the functioning of the marine environment.
Much fishing takes place far from land and the catch may be processed on board, frozen, packed and shipped off to markets.
This is where fisheries observers come in.
Work requirements assigned to the observer during his briefing session may vary from vessel to vessel, fishery to fishery, and season to season.
NFA (National Fisheries Authority) has 272 fisheries observers of which one is a woman and many people really do not know what an observer does.
Currently, each observer under the NFA Observer Programme are equipped with a personal life saving beacon (PLB), personal floating device (PFD) or life jacket and an inreach to send message from the vessel to headquarters through the Fisheries Information Management System operated by NFA.
Observers are not law enforcement officers, although they are increasingly being required to ensure that rules and regulations are correctly implemented and to report any violations.
This function makes them vulnerable to bribery, threats of violence and actual physical abuse.
How frequently this occurs is difficult to assess.
There are reports of harassment and even deaths – observers have been lost at sea without trace and some may have a story of being threatened or harassed at some point and this could often go unreported due to fears for their job or of risking their safety on future trips.
The risks involved obviously is high, hence all concerned should be working together to bring it down.
For a start, the Government must take appropriate actions including the suspension of fishing licence for any foreign vessel which violates the rights of local observers.
The concerns raised on this issue is not only for NFA and the PNG Government to address as the effort of an observer in speaking up against trans-shipment can save the State millions of kina.
It is reassuring to know that the minister has NFA to continue to upgrade its systems which includes the issuance of monitoring devices in the form of wrist bands or even implants.
To reduce the risks, observers need: Intense training in basic survival and safety measures for the prevention of accidents; training in how to identify, deal with, and document any instances of interference (including bribery), intimidation or obstruction by the vessel crew; deployment of two observers per vessel for support especially on long trips; and back-up support from fisheries authorities is essential.
Fisheries observers are independent representatives of the fisheries management agency and are usually the only source of independently collected information on the impacts of fishing upon the marine environment.