New report raises concern for human rights at sea

October 25, 2023


A new independent report from Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) and the Association of Professional Observers (APO) has triggered urgent recommendations for increased safety, security and wellbeing for fisheries observers. Fisheries observers are public servants who are tasked with monitoring commercial fisheries, to support science, conservation, and the sustainable management of our oceans. It has been revealed that not all observers are adequately protected by their employers, including those working within the European Union’s maritime coverage. 


The report was triggered following an at-sea incident of alleged harassment and the subsequent evacuation of a Portuguese fisheries observer from a Portuguese fishing vessel in April 2023, which takes further account of a 2021 incident where another Portuguese observer was evacuated from a vessel for reporting instances of interference and intimidation on board. An incident in June 2023 remains under investigation at state and EU level and involved the unexplained death of another Portuguese observer on a Portuguese-flagged fishing vessel fishing off the coast of Argentina.  


The report concluded the following recommendations: 

  1. Transparent Public Reporting. All cases of all forms of individual abuse, including, but not limited to harassment and observer mortalities (explained and/or unexplained) must be transparently reported. This includes the ongoing study of the trends in observer harassment to identify the sources.
    (companies, fisheries, regions and whether associated with reporting of IUU activities or not). 
  1. Two-way Communication Devices. Assured provision at all times of personal two-way communications devices that are fully working, including the capacity to emit an SOS emergency signal with their location. 
  1. Professionalisation. Professionalisation of the role of fisheries observer with recognition by the ILO via an amendment to ILO C188. 
  1. RFMO Contracts. Observer providers contract directly with the RFMO rather than with the fishing company. 
  1. Litigation Indemnity. Observers must be indemnified from litigation by fishing companies. 
  1. Guaranteed Confidentiality. Observer providers and agencies must have guarantees of confidentiality of observers’ personal information. All communications from the fishing company or vessel personnel must go through the observer provider or the agency. 
  1. Assured Agency Transparency with Dependants of Observers. In the event of an observer’s death or disappearance, agencies and observer providers must prioritize providing the dependants with transparent immediate basic information about the circumstances involved in the death of their loved ones, such as basic observer program information and duties of the observer. Further, this must include all communications from the observer while on the vessel, agency/observer provider responses, medical treatment response on board, details of any investigation, autopsy reports without delay, and accurate certificates of death. 


Observers often face a high level of vulnerability or multiple forms of harassment in their role because their work environment is out of sight and without access to land-based scrutiny. They face challenging scenarios, such as monitoring commercial catches, often with high financial values and working on vessels which might be undertaking Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities. Observers often face direct pressure or threats to verify unlawful catches, and because fisheries are a public asset, “the public has a right to know where fisheries observers are prevented from doing their jobs” – Liz Mitchel of the Association for Professional Observers. The need for improved transparency benefits fisheries observers and is a critical requirement for assuring sustainable fisheries around the world.  


The report makes several recommendations to protect fisheries observers, including, transparent public reporting to identify trends in harassment and the sources, assured provision of two-way communication devices with the capacity to emit an SOS signal for observers, and observers to be contracted by the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) rather than with the fishing company. Human rights apply on the sea as they do on the land. Protecting fisheries observers will protect not just their fundamental rights and personal safety, but our oceans, their sustainability and global fisheries stocks.  


This work is supported by the Sustainable Fisheries and Community Trust, Blue Marine Foundation, CHIRP Maritime, APOCM and the International Pole and Line Foundation. You can read the full report here.  

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