Fisheries 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, collecting the scientific information vital for management of fish stocks the world over – or rather, for those countries that have the means to develop and implement a fisheries observer program.

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 bycatch 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 distant markets. This is where fisheries observers come in.

Observer programmes in Africa have had mixed success with many floundering due to a lack of political commitment. However, there are exceptions. Namibia’s observer programme began in 2002 and received government commitment and long-term advice and financial aid from Norway to help train the hundreds of observers necessary to monitor Namibia’s fishing fleet. Today Namibia runs a globally-respected observer programme with observers on upwards of 70% of vessels.

In a recent development 22 member states of ATLAFCO, African countries bordering the Atlantic Ocean, are working on a regional observer program to monitor the activities of foreign vessels in the EEZs of member countries. Regional cooperation is essential; with foreign tuna vessels often crossing several exclusive economic zones as they follow the stocks during a fishing trip, it is not practical to change observers each time a vessel crosses a national border.

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. An observer says that “every observer who has been doing it for very long has a story of being threatened or harassed at some point” although often this goes unreported due to fears for their job or of risking their safety on future trips. Reported transgressions are not always treated seriously; a Korean captain fishing in South African waters was caught trying to bribe and then threaten an observer after he had been taped fishing illegally, including carrying out shark finning, but the court released the captain with a light fine.

But there are reports of harassment and even deaths – observers have been lost at sea without trace, and there are strong suspicions that not all disappearances are accidents. The disappearance of Keith Davis, a “transhipment observer”, from a carrier vessel in broad daylight in calm seas off the coast of Peru in September 2015 was widely reported in the media but investigations by the FBI and others could find no evidence to suggest what happened to him. There are other reports, including one of two observers who vanished off Angola while monitoring foreign boats. To reduce the risks observers need:

  • 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,
  • back-up support from fisheries authorities is essential.


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