A group of leading NGOs has published a statement calling for a full and independent investigation into deaths and human rights abuses in the convention area of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC). The statement, signed by Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE), WWF, Bloom Association and Sharkproject, follows the publication of a report earlier this month by Human Rights at Sea, highlighting shocking cases of human rights violations and observer deaths at sea in the region.
The statement, which was submitted to the Chair of the WCPFC Ms Jung-re Riley Kim, makes specific reference to the tragic death and suspected murder of Kiribati fisheries observer Eritara Aatii in March 2020 on board the Taiwanese registered fishing vessel Win Far No.636. The 40-year-old father of four was found dead in his cabin following a blow to the head. He is the eighth known fisheries observer to die or go missing in the region since 2009.
Many of these deaths and disappearances have occurred since the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) tuna fishery, which includes eight Pacific island nations, gained Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification in 2011. The Human Rights at Sea report, referenced in the statement, questioned why, after Eritara Aatii was reported dead on 4 March 2020, the PNA appeared to have waited until 15 April 2020 – 41 days later – to revoke the relevant MSC certificate.
The NGO statement emphasises that fisheries cannot be regarded as properly regulated for sustainability when examples of serious human rights abuses continue, and that certification schemes assessing environmental sustainability across the supply chain must be able to assure consumers that such product is not tainted by any human rights abuses.
Fisheries observers, who play a crucial role in reporting illegal activities like shark finning and the retention of protected species, are known to face bribery attempts and intimidation in the course of their work. Prior to his death, Eritara Aatii had confided in his sister that he had been offered bribes over a shark fin catch.
Charles Clover, BLUE’s executive director, says: “The WCPFC urgently needs to commission a thorough, independent investigation into the deaths of fisheries observers within its convention area. There is a shameful lack of transparency surrounding these deaths and disappearances, and we call on the WCPFC to make public the results of this investigation to ensure that those responsible are held to account and to prevent further loss of life and human rights abuse in this fishery.”
Too few of the observer deaths in the vast area of the PNA fishery have led to the release of official reports reviewing the circumstances involved in the deaths or disappearances. The statement insists that thorough and transparent investigation and reporting of these cases would play a crucial role in deterring future abuse.