Observer Harassment

Observer programs are universally lacking in the reporting of trends in observer harassment and interference.  There is often a deficiency in law enforcement to provide consequences to the perpetrators.  Sometimes observers are not only harassed at sea but face negative consequences from compromised program and/or agency staff, who are the very people charged with their protection.

The lack of transparency of even reporting observer deaths is a stain on observer programs.  Sustainable fishing certifications, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, lack criteria to protect observers or the metrics to gauge the effectiveness of observer program management.  If observers are getting harassed they cannot collect unbiased data. Despite the lack of reporting, APO routinely hears from observers (directly or indirectly) that they have been:

    • locked in their rooms; 
    • threatened at knife point;
    • chased down the dock;
    • forced to sign off on MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) criteria;
    • forced to accept a bribe under threats of violence;
    • raped;
    • withheld food;
    • And there have been 1-2 suspicious deaths at sea since 2015.  

We believe there are many more incidents that go unreported.  According to a survey of observers in the United States, almost half of the respondents had been harassed and, of those, only 1/3 report harassment every time it happens.  Part of the problem is that observers don’t believe agency staff will take the necessary action.  This was reflected in the last public posting of an I-Kiribati observer, Mr. Antin Tamwabeti, before his suicide in May 2019: 

“There were so many incidents reported by observers and some of the reports disappeared without a trace.  I am one of those observers keen in reporting incidents and it seemed to me that I have been wasting my time reporting for nothing.  Keeping a report and evidence of critical incidents during an observer trip was risky so every report must not be wasted. “


Understanding trends in observer interference first comes with public transparency of its occurrence.  If agencies are not systematically reporting this publicly, consumers are simply being duped into believing the monitoring program is effective and that the fish they eat are sustainable.  When observers are being harassed or if the agencies don’t appropriately respond to their reports, we cannot depend on the veracity of the data or the monitoring program.  Observer harassment must be rooted out. 

We must develop duty of care standards for observers that involve all stakeholders, publicly reporting the incidents in systematic way so that we can understand the trends – according to fishery, flag nation, region and other criteria – and use this to strengthen national and international laws protecting observers.

The APO aims to contribute to solutions:

  • Above all, we must provide all observers with direct private satellite communication devices so that they may communicate privately with agency/rescue personnel on shore.   This is important for observers to report on anything unusual, even if it is something mild. Such information is critical evidence, should the harassment escalate.  
  • Disseminate information:  We’ve worked with Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) since 2006 to file Freedom of Information Act requests on observer harassment in the US;
  • Standardize terminology and types of observer interference:  It is important to define the types of interference in order to develop trends in observer harassment;
  • Report on efforts underway to tackle observer harassment and interference;
  • Collaborate with investigative agencies to develop standards of investigative protocols involving the deaths of observers;
  • Collaborate with sustainable fisheries certification organizations to include criteria that verifies the observer isn’t being harassed or interfered with. 

If, as an observer, you have experienced harassment, you are not alone.  Please join us in pressing for action to root it out.