Deploying a Fisheries Observer on a Purse Seiner  / by Francisco Blaha

I've been back at my 4th (of 8) stints here in the Marshalls Islands for a couple of weeks now, and among the 20 elements of my work plan, one that is close to my heart is to work on an integral set of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for Fisheries Observers who have been trained under the Pacific Island Region Fisheries Observer (PIRFO) program. 

Munua (from Tuvalu) logs in.

Munua (from Tuvalu) logs in.

Not an easy process... so far, we have identified 27 different SOPs over eight different sections (Training & Certification, Placement, Safety and Tracking, Debriefing & Assessment, Administration, Equipment,  Discipline and Electronic Reporting & Monitoring), but it is fun as I remember many issues of my past and I’m working in Majuro is surely the Fisheries Observer capital of the world! It must have the biggest amount of Observers (in relation to population) worldwide. Being a major transhipment hub (35 to 50 per month), there is a constant stream of Observers from all over the Pacific getting on and off vessels in Majuro lagoon.   

To deal with most of these guys is the job of Bernard Fiubala, the Observer Coordinator here in MIMRA (I’m working with him on the SOPs task). He is from the first generations of Observers here in the Pacific, he knows his stuff left right and centre, but what I appreciate the most is that he cares about “his” observers more than he likes to admit, I think. He is like their uncle actually!

Uncle Bernard (2nd from the left) and "his" observers (Meli the incoming, and Manua the outgoing), reviewing the accommodation with the 2nd mate.

Uncle Bernard (2nd from the left) and "his" observers (Meli the incoming, and Manua the outgoing), reviewing the accommodation with the 2nd mate.

I have accompanied him to do the observer placements as part of some of the inspections we do, but today I decided to document the process for our SOPs and as there is a lot of public interest on the observers, I thought I’ll share this process.

Before I dig deeper on this, let me clear up a couple of things in regards observer safety (and I recommend you read this article from the latest SPC Fisheries Newsletter by my colleague Tim Park, PSC’s Observer Coordinator). Here I quote a bit of it:

Observer’s dual data collection and monitoring role can isolate them from the captain and crew, their only company, sometimes for months at a time, if they are on the high seas. The Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) has identified instances of observers being assaulted, prevented from doing their job, asked not to report an incident, or denied food, water and safety gear. There have been six observers lost in the Pacific Islands region over recent years due to accidents, undisclosed medical issues that were exacerbated by working at sea and even suicide. One observer was allegedly killed by crew members, and one death remains a mystery. These incidents have all occurred since observers were given the role of monitoring the closure of fish aggregating devices, catch retention and other compliance issues. Since the beginning of 2017, observers are all meant to be equipped with an emergency beacon and two-way communication device in order to stay in touch with their agency. This is an important first step; however, the accidental loss of an observer in 2017 resulted in the implementation of a regional regulation on observer safety with obligations in relation to search and rescue and the treatment of observers who are placed on the fishing vessels.

Unfortunately, we had six deaths of observers in our region since 2010, which no doubt is six too many. 

I think it is important to put things in perspective. We have more than 820 active observers working across 15 observer programmes in Pacific Island countries and territories (PICTs). In Majuro alone, we have around 300 placements a year just from here... on a yearly basis pacific-wide there are an estimated 2000 observer trips in Purse Seiners, approximately 700 on LL and 10 on P&L. 


Even if we were to assume only 1000 trips a year (8000 over 8 years) that gives us a 0.075% fatality rate, which is very low. Particularly taking in considerations that fishing is the most dangerous job in the world, and pretty much everything on board can hurt you. I think there is a misconception that observers are sent to a type of war zone, that is not the case.

Please don't get me wrong here, and I’m only speaking on a personal capacity and I’m not dismissing in any form or way that there could have been sinister motivations behind each of those 6 unfortunate deaths, but then I don't automatically assume them either.

I have spent a lot of time at sea in fisherman and observer roles and I believe personal risk management has a strong cultural and “type of life” component. We do stuff in fishing boats that people from other industries will not do. I have done stuff that I would not do today and, in many cases, I was fortunate not to get seriously hurt

Think in your own societies as well, "city kids" were cautioned about play with us "farm/bush kids" because we were to “wild”. My wife is North European and cringes (surely with reason) at my lack of safety precaution when working with heavy machinery or chainsaws, which I don't see it because I have done the work many times before and I think I know my limitations, yet she sees it differently, which is also fair. 

Add to that, youthful exuberance and in many occasions, the fact that the “young me” and many of my Pacific friends, when you go on board you are away from your family or village “contention”, and no one is putting too many limits on your behaviour.  Anyway, my point is when things go wrong on board… they go seriously wrong.

Then there is the elephant in the room: alcohol. One of the biggest killers in our societies, and the Pacific is no different. Personally, I’m not really into alcohol, nothing religious or moral about it. It is just that I don't like it and I don't have to go far into my family history, to see how otherwise charming people transform themselves into irresponsible and violent individuals when they are drunk. 

In fact, under the “macho” culture of fishing prevalent when I was in the boats I learn that it was easier (and safer!) to say “I don't drink anymore”, that to say “I don't drink” and have to explain and aggravate people, since they feel judged. Unfortunately, we live in a society where in some respects, an “ex-alcoholic” get more social acceptance than a “non-drinker”.

And yes! We can argue that is that the alcohol may be given to the observer by the crew and/or officers and that is wrong, yet the observer may also drink that alcohol while on duty, and that is also wrong.

Therefore, I’m VERY happy that a zero tolerance for alcohol while on board has been drilled into the vessels' master and the observer during the whole placement and briefing process. And more importantly, the fact that they have a 2-way communication tracker (like this or this) with an SOS feature that can be used if they feel their safety gets compromised. (This is part of the array of fisheries Apps we use in the Pacific)

But let's go back to the placement process. A purse seine observer may be on board for 1, 2, or 3 trips, depending on the length of the trips. Every time a new observer comes on board, a formal briefing and placement process takes place, there is no way around that.

While the programme under which the observer is placed depends on national, bilateral or multilateral agreements, the process is totally standardised for all of them. The Observer coordinator comes on board with the observer, introduces themselves and the observer to the master and an early priority is to the check the accommodation where the Observer will be sleeping, they asses from physical space, condition of the mattress (bed bugs), security of storage area, allocated life jackets, etc. 

From there, it is off to the bridge where a 3-page checklist is reviewed and discussed dealing with matters ranging from access to safety to communications with the shore, to food and privacy. Describing the rights and obligations of both parties and each element is initialised, then signed by all the involved and then stamped by the captain. And of course the no alcohol rule is reinforced every time!

Captain agrees (and makes himself responsible) to 3 pages of conditions.

Captain agrees (and makes himself responsible) to 3 pages of conditions.

Then the Observer either stay of goes back to land and returns prior departure, the vessel is not cleared if the Observer is not on safe on board. 

Over the years I may have accompanied maybe 70 to 80 placements and I have yet to see a hostile one. The PS captains are very used to the process and the observer presence is part of the deal.

Most purse seiners have good living conditions, of course, the newest ones being more comfortable. Food can be an issue if you are a bit close minded about it, really depends on the nationality of the cook and the officers… in my opinion, Spanish, Japanese, Korean and American vessels (as in pure American and not Taiwanese/American) have the best food.

Once on board, you need to find your way into what it a close-knit "society". In my case; I’m helpful by nature, and that has always been good to me while on board. I had the advantage of have been a fisherman, so I know when and where I could help safely during manoeuvring before and during fishing, and in general terms, a helpful guy is always well received, the crew like keen people. 

The other thing that helped me a lot (more than I ever thought possible!) is that I’m a keen baker and I like making cakes. Western type cakes are not very common in Asian cuisine, yet they are liked. So I would board with a couple of cake moulds (today they are made of silicon so is easier) and some essentials; cocoa, vanilla, icing sugar, baking powder, but nothing major.

The key is working around the cooks always busy schedule, and he will be happy, the crew get really happy about it (everyone likes cake) and honestly, it doesn’t take me much of an effort. I had it as a weekly event, and the guys were already looking forward to it.

Of course, as in life, there may always be someone that for whatever reason does not like you and it is perhaps best to ignore that. Plenty more appreciate you putting a bit of an effort. The good thing about this is that it does not interfere with the work done or put you in any conflict of interest. 

I have written many times before that I have total respect for the job Observers do, they are a key cornerstone for vital data collection for effective fisheries management. Many of the people I respect in the fishing world were observers at some stage and that shows as soon as they start talking.

Personally, I would love to see more observers transitioning into fisheries officers in the Pacific, there is an untapped potential of insider knowledge there that we all could benefit from, while giving the experienced observer a path into the broader fisheries world.

Have a good trip Manua!