Dying in a Lawless Sea (by Juan Vilata)

Since late 2017 and early 2018, a few online journals, newspapers and community radios mostly based in Pacific ocean nations have echoed a terrible fact: The “disappearance at sea” -death- of several fisheries observers from Papua New Guinea, whilst working onboard tuna fishing vessels over the last few years [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7]. The available information is scant and somewhat uncertain, and thus the exact number of disappearances is as of yet unclear. But there are at least four confirmed cases. Regardless of what the total number might be once confirmed, any death of a fisheries observer is an extremely worrying event, and more so if the circumstances of the disappearance/death are left unexplained. Sure enough, some of these cases could actually had been accidents (and there seems to be partial evidence that it might have been so in one case); after all, fishing is certainly a very dangerous activity, even in the absence of criminal circumstances. But all four?

Landing tuna (Juan Vilata)

It is important to be aware of the crucial role undertaken by fisheries observers: at the very minimum, their presence onboard a fishing vessel is aimed to check whether the fishery is conducted within the legal framework. But also, most fisheries’ claims to sustainability would be impossible (or at least very hard) to prove, if the vessels weren’t carrying observers onboard. By the very nature of their task, observers are always at risk of being deemed intruders by the crew. More so if that crew is used to engage in illegal fishing activities, of which there can be many modalities: for instance, they could be using banned gear, targeting moratoria species, exceeding their allotted quota, fishing in waters where they don’t have license to, finning sharks, or illegally transshipping their catch. The level and intensity of occurrence of these and many other kinds of illegal fishing activities is very variable amongst the different fleets; they can range from being very rare events, up to basically daily routine. And there’s also a wide array of fishing regulations which need to be monitored, such for instance, limits to the capture of vulnerable species, or measures and technical implements aiming to reduce discards. Depending on how strict the regulatory framework is (regulations are not always compulsory), their breach might be deemed illegal or else it might be still legal but clearly unsustainable. Regardless of these distinctions, an unmonitored fishing vessel is much more likely to engage into these practices than another one which carries an observer onboard.

So, in short, although there are other means to monitor the activity of a fishing vessel (for instance, satellite monitoring systems, which are being continuously improved), the first and foremost check of the activities of the vessel is up to the observer. Depending on the specification of the observer program, if the observers witness some serious infringement, they might be required to report it by radio, or at least write it down in their reports. And the crew knows this. It is certainly not a comfortable situation. Depending on the seriousness of the circumstances -including the gravity of the infringement, the value of the catch, the vessel’s legal story, and other variables- observers might be subjected to anything ranging from the offering of bribes to serious threats, in order to prevent them from reporting what they observed.

Now, one obvious question about the missing PNG observers could be “How can this happen?” How can (at least) four people vanish into thin air after boarding their assigned vessels? Well, it does happen because tuna fisheries are a multi-billion industry [8], hence there’s a lot of money at stake, and because out there in the sea, onboard the distant water fishing fleets, there’s in practice a legal void [9, 10, 11, 12]. As things are now, in all likelihood, anything that happens onboard a distant fishing vessel will be left unpunished. Most nations owning large distant water fleets deny against all logic that they have any responsibility for what happens in their vessels. And yet, it stands to reason: similarly to diplomatic outposts, any vessel sailing under the flag of a given country should be considered, at all legal effects, as a territorial extension of such country. And therefore, the flag country should be -is- accountable for whatever happens onboard. This issue of the current impunity of flag countries has been reviewed by multiple sources, one of which is the excellent short documentary by the NGO Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) about human rights abuses at the Taiwanese distant waters fishing fleet [13].

But let’s not forget about the missing observers. They boarded the vessels, alive, never to return. It’s not as if they were anonymous: they had names, faces, and families. And it is registered which vessel was boarded by each one of them, and on which day. The names of the vessels are likely to have been changed by now, in an attempt by the vessel owners to escape prosecution from the authorities. However, the vessels always belong to a fishing and/or seafood trading company, and this can be traced, even though they’re almost always screened behind ghost companies based in convenience countries. Unmasking the real identity of the company owning a given vessel can in fact be a detective’s job. But it can be done.

Since no one else seems to care or do much about their safety, fisheries observers have organized themselves within APO -the international Association for Professional Observers-, and are running a project called OSIRS: the registry of all Observer Casualties, Injuries, and Near Misses [14]. OSIRS tries to keep track of every incident affecting the safety of fisheries observers, regardless of their nationality or the flags of the vessels they boarded. APO is a non-for-profit association with limited means; nevertheless, they’re doing a remarkable effort by keeping track of all these incidents. Given the secrecy around most of them, this is no easy task.

But now a second obvious question would be: “What is being done about it?” Well, not much, apparently. At the national level, PNG authorities do not seem to be making very strong advances in tracing the companies and identifying the people responsible. Whether this is for lack of funding, insufficiently prepared staff, or any other reason, the investigation does not bode well. Let’s not forget though that PNG is one of the world’s poorest nations [15], and its political stability is very fragile [16, 17, 18], all of which might undermine its capacities to take this investigation through to the end. But this shouldn’t be taken exclusively as an internal PNG’s issue: the vessels from which the observers disappeared belong to foreign fleets, and they caught tuna that by now has likely entered the global supply chain, and thus might have arrived to our plates.

And here’s the point: “What are the international tuna market actors doing about this?” Let’s imagine for a moment that the nationality of the observers had been different: Can anyone imagine four Australians (or French, or Americans, or Spaniards, or British, or Norwegians) working as fisheries observers, going missing onboard tuna fishing vessels (at least three of them in as of yet completely unexplained circumstances), and that nothing was done about it? Where are the international mass media, why aren’t they denouncing this?

These disappearances cannot, and must not, be left unresolved. This is a question of responsibility to the victims’ families, but also to ourselves: if we acquiesce with this impunity, we’ll be sharing the responsibility, as long as we keep consuming tuna whilst asking no questions. And more crucially, by doing nothing about it, we’re practically guarantying that this will happen yet again.

[1] Papua New Guinea Post Courier (2018). Increased Deaths of PNG observers. https://bit.ly/2IMhV9b
[2] RNZ (2017). PNG seeks to investigate purse seiner after observer’s death. https://bit.ly/2GkM1BX
[3] RNZ (2018). PNG parliament told about fisheries observers who disappear. https://bit.ly/2CHNcpn
[4] Keith Jackson – ASOPA (2018). On the trail of the missing PNG fisheries observers. https://bit.ly/2GkgTCJ
[5] www.wikitribune.com (2017). Updated: Murder and abuse – the price of your sashimi. https://bit.ly/2pDfX22
[6] The National (2018). Safety of fisheries observers a priority. https://bit.ly/2pAfIWg
[7] Human rights at sea.org (2017). Investigative report and case study: Fisheries abuses and related deaths at sea in the Pacific region. HRAS Report 1 December 2017. https://bit.ly/2G5YxC7
[8] Galland, G., Rogers, A., & Nickson, A. (2016).The Pew Charitable Trusts. Netting Billions: A Global Valuation of Tuna. https://bit.ly/1W1T97C
[9] Urbina, I. (2015). Sea Slaves: The Human Misery That Feeds Pets and Livestock. The New York Times, 07.27.2015. https://bit.ly/2ulHTx3
[10] Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF), (2010). All at Sea: The Abuse of Human Rights Aboard Illegal Fishing Vessels. EJF, London (2010). https://bit.ly/2pGBeb9
[11] Marschke, M., & Vandergeest, P. (2016). Slavery scandals: Unpacking labour challenges and policy responses within the off-shore fisheries sector. Marine Policy, 68, 39-46. https://bit.ly/2pFdyUx
[12] Rosello, M. (2016). Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Control in the Exclusive Economic Zone: a Brief Appraisal of Regulatory Deficits and Accountability Strategies. Croatian International Relations Review, 22(75), 39-68. https://bit.ly/2pJtmXl
[13] Environmental Justice Foundation. Exploitation and lawlessness: the dark side of Taiwan’s fishing fleet. https://bit.ly/2GkDWxe
[14] APO/OSIRS. http://www.apo-observers.org/misses
[15] UNDP (2018). About Papua New Guinea. https://bit.ly/2DT0Czy
[16] May, R. (2013). State and society in Papua New Guinea: the first twenty-five years. ANU Press. https://bit.ly/2pEMeqp
[17] Allen, M. G. (2013). Melanesia’s violent environments: Towards a political ecology of conflict in the western Pacific. Geoforum, 44, 152-161.
[18] May, R. J. (2017). Papua New Guinea Under the O’Neill Government: Has There Been a Shift in Political Style? SSGM discussion paper 2017/6. State, Society and Governance in Melanesia. The Australian National University. https://bit.ly/2ISjAK8

IUU fishing in Africa (by Juan Vilata)

Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is a complex issue which encompasses different levels of activities involving both foreign and African actors. These activities include: unauthorised fishing in closed areas/seasons, illegal fishing by foreign vessels (distance water fleets, or DWFs), fishing with forged licenses or vessel registrations, unreported and misreported catches, discarding, catching undersized fish, taking fish in excess of quota, using prohibited gear and methods, performing illegal fish transhipments, landing in unauthorised ports, fishing without an observer on board and failing to operate a vessel monitoring system [1].

The economic impacts of IUU fishing are equally widespread. The most critical is the erosion of the fisheries resources of each sovereign state, thus directly threatening the long-term sustainability of its fisheries and jeopardising the jobs, livelihoods and food security of the country’s inhabitants. But IUU fishing impacts also include, for instance, increased harvest costs for legal operators; market sanctions for products from known locales affected by IUU activity; losses of taxation income for the state; invalidation of scientific fisheries data; lost port fees, port handling income, license fees, and fuel sales; price depression due to oversupply into certain markets; and downstream economic multiplier effects [1].

Several recent studies have shown discrepancies about how best to estimate the economic impacts of IUU fishing. For instance, a substantial portion of nearshore artisanal and subsistence IUU fishing already produces multiplier effects on the local economy. As a result, country-specific economic studies which do not take into account, or minimize, the IUU component of catches are bound to overestimate the economic benefits from fishing, compared to estimates that encompass IUU catches. An example can be found in the comparison between the Africa-wide ex-vessel value estimates reported by Pauly and Zeller (2015) [2] of about $ 7.1 billion, and the values assigned as ex-vessel in de Graaf and Garibaldi (2014) [3], about $ 9.8 billion. This difference is aligned with the general perception of IUU fishing to be in the order of 20%, as in MRAG 2005 [4]. However, recent work points to a much larger problem. The data presented by Pauly and Zeller (2016) [5] suggest that IUU catch levels are far larger than suggested by earlier studies. They estimate that the continent-wide EEZ IUU catch is a staggering 4.7 million tons. This amount excludes discards and is about 80% of the officially reported tonnage of 5.9 million tons.

Moreover, Pauly and Zeller (2016) also estimate that the unit price per kg of this IUU catch is far larger; 2.2 $/kg ex-vessel, compared to the weighted average price of 1.2 $/kg ex-vessel for reported catches. Their estimate of the value of the IUU catch of $ 10 billion (excluding discards) is therefore about 40% larger than their estimate of the value of the reported catch itself ($ 7.1 billion). Part of a possible answer to how and where such a large IUU catch could occur is the Chinese DWF. These authors estimate that Chinese DWF catches are underreported by a factor of about 10, and that the Chinese DWF operating in the African EEZ catches 3.1 million tons, of which 2.8 million tons are IUU. These estimates present a challenge at many levels in dealing with IUU fishing. Of the five African regions, West Africa is hardest hit by IUU fishing, followed by Northern Africa and then Central Africa. [1]

If all IUU catch could enter the African value chain and stimulate economic activity, then this would add between $ 30 billion and $ 45 billion to the GDP of coastal states in Africa. This is an increase in the coastal African states GDP of between 1.1% and 1.7%. The reliability of this figure must be tempered by the fact that a percentage of this amount is already flowing through the domestic economies, and another portion is caught by foreign vessels whose legal activity is often based on resources that African states do not have the capacity to exploit optimally. Even so, it is clear from Pauly and Zeller’s work that IUU fishing is extremely harming to the economies of coastal African states, and that the previous estimates about the extent of IUU fishing in Africa were probably too conservative, thus failing to adequately reflect the extent of the problem [1].

IUU fishing impacts go well beyond the strictly economic sphere. There’s a wide array of socioeconomic impacts as well. Besides the already mentioned impacts on food security and nutrition, loss of existing jobs and potential employment opportunities, and impacts on local livelihoods, there are also deleterious effects at the level of safety and security, impacts on women and gender relations, as well as human rights abuses (including slavery) on board IUU vessels. The main social impacts are experienced by local communities that are dependent on coastal resources for food and livelihoods. For many medium- to low-income countries along the coast of Africa there are few alternatives to fishing and fishery-related activities. Thus ensuring the sustainable use and conservation of these marine systems, and enabling safe access to marine waters by coastal communities is of paramount importance. This is especially critical in countries on the eastern and western seaboard of the continent with a low development index and with a large percentage of their populations living in poverty [1].

Furthermore, there is also yet another aspect of IUU fishing: its impact upon the marine ecosystems. The environmental impacts of IUU fishing are multifaceted and can be classified into three areas: (a) stock status impacts, (b) habitat degradation, and (c) impact on ecosystem services and biodiversity. Some of the most productive and biodiverse marine habitats in Africa that are negatively impacted by IUU fishing are coral reefs. These are often accessible to the high human population density on the coast and are exploited by a range of destructive methods. Thus, the ecosystem service value of the coral reefs of Africa is being degraded and compromised. Other habitats severely impacted by IUU fishing are seagrass meadows and seamounts, which are being destroyed by industrial benthic trawling [1]. This fishing method is worth highlighting not just because of its destructiveness to benthic habitats, but also because it produces a huge amount of discards as a result of its low selectivity. For instance, industrial bottom trawl fisheries for tropical shrimp have extremely high discard rates, in the order of 70% or larger.

By last, the analysis of factors which make Africa particularly vulnerable to IUU fishing highlights the quality of governance as a significant factor. The dimensions of “Control of Corruption”, “Government Effectiveness”, “Rule of Law” and “Regulatory Quality” from the World Bank’s governance index are all negatively related to the percentage of IUU fishing on a country by country basis (using Pauly and Zeller’s estimates of IUU). A further factor in Africa is the legacy of civil wars, social turmoil and other crises which has created fertile ground for IUU fishing to prosper. Other vulnerability factors that emerge are: weak and ineffective MCS, institutional corruption, inappropriate penalties for infractions in comparison to the value of the IUU catch, the availability of flags and ports of convenience, inadequate legal and justice systems, lack of political will to fight IUU, weak port inspections, absence of necessary diplomatic action to facilitate regional cooperation, inadequate data for MCS and inadequate regional sharing of such data, the absence of policies and legislation grounded in sustainability and precautionary principles, and lack of transparency and data sharing around foreign fishing arrangements [1].

It is therefore clear that taking urgent action to effectively deter IUU fishing in African countries is of the utmost importance, in order to safeguard the long-term sustainability of African fisheries upon which the livelihood and food security of coastal communities depend. One of the tools for creating awareness is to document the negative impacts of IUU Fishing as well as the best practices of monitoring, control and surveillance (MCS). The evidence obtained from such a work on IUU Fishing in Africa can then be used for advocacy work to galvanize African governments to take decisive action against this harmful practice.

[1] AU-IBAR. 2016. Economic, Social and Environmental impact of Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing in Africa. AU-IBAR Reports. 219 pp.
[2] Pauly, D., and D. Zeller, editors. 2015. Sea Around Us Concepts, Design and Data. www.seaaroundus.org.
[3] de Graaf, G., and L. Garibaldi. 2014. The value of African fisheries. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Circular. Rome, Italy.
[4] MRAG. 2005. IUU Fishing on the high seas: Impacts on ecosystems and future science needs. London, UK.
[5] Pauly, D., and D. Zeller. 2016. Catch reconstructions reveal that global marine fisheries catches are higher than reported and declining. Nature Communications 7:9.

Observação das Pescas de pequenos pelágicos na RAM (by Raquel Tejerina)

Os pequenos pelágicos são peixes que constituem um importante recurso alimentar e económico na Região Autónoma da Madeira, a seguir ao peixe-espada-preto e o atum, sendo importantes para a pesca e consumo humano, mas também a nível do ecosistema, como alimento para muitos predadores marinhos que habitam ou frequentam as mesmas áreas.


Estas espécies denominadas localmente “Ruama” são capturadas durante todo o ano ao Sul da Ilha da Madeira exclusivamente com redes de cerco. É uma pesca que é realizada durante a noite e o banco de peixe é localizado com a ajuda da sonda e atraído para o barco com a ajuda de luzes em combinação com engodo. Na época do atum, também podem ser capturadas pelos atuneiros para serem utilizadas como isco vivo.


Apesar de haver bastante informação específica sobre a biologia e estrutura da população de cada uma das espécies, tais como a sua idade, crescimento e reprodução graças aos estudos realizados na Direção de Serviços de Investigação (DSI) da Direção Regional de Pescas (DRP), não existe uma análise socio-económica nem um plano de gestão comum para todas as espécies de Ruama. Também não temos informação sobre interacção da pesca com espécies sensíveis.

Assim, este trabalho tem como principais objectivos a avaliação do esforço de pesca dirigido às espécies de pequenos pelágicos na R.A.M., em particular o chicharro (Trachurus picturatus), a cavala (Scomber colias) e a sardinha (Sardina pilchardus), de modo a contribuir para a avaliação do estado destes recursos, e também a detecção de interacções com outras espécies, nomeadamente predadores como os tunídeos e os mamíferos marinhos.


O trabalho está integrado no Programa Nacional de Recolha de Dados da Pesca (PNRD), que decorre anualmente em todos os países membros da União Europeia, ao abrigo do Regulamento do Conselho (CE) n.º 199/2008, Decisão da Comissão (2010/93/UE) e Decisão da Comissão (UE) 2016/1251 a través da bolsa ARDITI-OOM/2016/006 e a Direção Regional das Pescas .

Assim, será efetuada a recolha de dados a bordo de embarcações da pesca de Ruama mediante a realização de um plano regular de embarques como observadora*, acompanhando 100% da frota. De futuro, este programa de observadores será ampliado aos restantes segmentos da frota pesqueira da RAM.

Raquel Tejerina is financially supported by the Oceanic Observatory of Madeira Project (M1420-01-0145-FEDER-000001-Observatório Oceânico da Madeira-OOM)’