Disappearances on the Rise in the Pacific

fishing vessel
file photo

Published Dec 4, 2017 8:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.K.-based charity Human Rights at Sea has published its latest investigative report into the increasing number of deaths and disappearances of crew and fisheries observers in the Pacific Ocean.

Fishing can contribute up to 10 percent of Pacific Island states’ GDP and provides employment for up to 60 percent of the population. However, due to the profitability of the sector, illegal practices are increasingly common. National programs to have fisheries observers stem from the desire to boost the sustainability of the industry. Observers act as both scientists and enforcers, collecting catch data and reporting violations. They also supervise transshipment at sea, a practice that has been associated with smuggling and human trafficking and which can facilitate the disguise of the source of seafood entering overseas markets.

At least six fisheries observers have disappeared in recent years, with at least two of them in circumstances that are considered suspicious by the Association of Professional Observers. 

The cross-border nature of Pacific fisheries can make it difficult to enforce employment standards and basic human rights for crew on fishing vessels. This includes the right to a written work contract, decent hours of rest and safe working conditions.

The report cites a number of case studies involving deaths and disappearances of observers and crew including:

Keith Davis

In 2015, fisheries observer Keith Davis went missing on an Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission transshipment vessel. The investigation into his appearance was hampered by delays, with over 24 hours passing before the U.S. Coast Guard was notified. Subsequent search efforts were then delayed due to issues of jurisdiction between various local and national authorities, says Human Rights at Sea, which also states that a vessel that could have been used to transport potential suspects from the scene was never called to port for investigation.

James Junior Numbaru

Fisheries observer James Junior Numbaru went missing off Nauru earlier this year during benign weather conditions. After a 24-hour investigation, Nauru authorities determined that his disappearance was not suspicious and allowed the vessel to leave. His body is yet to be found. 

Ship of Horror

A report published in 2014 revealed abuse suffered by crew on a South Korean fishing vessel. The crew were beaten and subject to inhumane punishment such as being made to stand on deck during extreme weather conditions without food or water. They also reported rape. The ship eventually sank, killing six, and the abuses were reported by survivors.

Dog Bites

An Indonesian crewman reported dog bites and scratches whilst on a Taiwanese fishing vessel as the master's dog was used to “control” the crew. 

He Didn't Make It

A body washed up at Majuro in the Marshall Islands in 2016, later identified as a Kiribati crewman. A witness statement said that the man was forced to swim to a second boat at the behest of the captain who wanted to transship the man to another vessel. He was not provided a dinghy or flying fox and didn't make it.

Human Rights at Sea says that protecting the Pacific region's sustainability and workforce poses a number of complex challenges including the sheer scale of the region and the large number of legal jurisdictions. The charity calls for united support from the international community to bring about positive change.

The report was prepared with the assistance of a range of sources, including Dr. Patricia Kailola of the NGO Pacific Dialogue in Fiji.

The report is available here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.