NOAA Fishing Observers Suffer More Attacks at Sea

WASHINGTON, DC, August 29, 2007 (ENS) - Attacks against government observers monitoring commercial fishing fleets doubled in one year, an indication of rising tensions on the high seas, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

Observers on fishing vessels track the catch to manage quotas and report any harm to marine mammals and other marine species.

Figures obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act show that the number of observer harassment cases more than doubled from 2004 to 2005, at the top of a rising trend over the past decade.

During 2005, the last year for which figures are available, more than one in 10 of the 500 observers in service experienced some form of intimidation or obstruction, according to agency records.

Many of the observers are female and face particular challenges from all-male fishing crews on long, difficult voyages.

Other violations reported by observers rose dramatically starting in 1999 and continued to rise through 2005, according to PEER, a national association of government workers in natural resources agencies.

But even as reported incidents increase, the government agency responsible for the monitoring program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has stopped keeping track of incidents.

For more than 30 years, professional observers have accompanied commercial fishing vessels to monitor compliance with catch limits, by-catch rules and regulations protecting dolphins and other marine mammals.

These observers, who work under contract to NOAA, are the only independent source of information for what occurs on the high seas.

The economic pressures facing commercial fishing fleets are growing more intense as fish populations continue to decline and international competition grows fiercer. At the same time, reported cases of harassment of and interference with observers is on the rise.

Yet in 2006, NOAA abruptly stopped collected data, writing to PEER that “no documents were found that are responsive to your request … for a summary of all incidents of violence, threats or harassment against professional observers … between January 1 and December 31, 2006.”

Agency data also indicated that in the vast majority of cases, NOAA took no enforcement action, and when it did, a warning was the most frequent sanction. Many violations were dismissed on the basis that the agency lacked resources to investigate them.

"These numbers suggest that when the going gets tough for its fishery observers, NOAA goes away," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, whose organization has tracked attacks against federal resource workers ever since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

"As our oceans continue to be over-fished, the importance of supporting the corps of professional observers only grows more acute," said Ruch, "yet NOAA appears to be in retreat."

At an international conference for fishery observer programs May 15 in Victoria, British Columbia, Bill Hogarth, director of NOAA Fisheries Service, said, "We need strong observer programs to address the significant problem of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. It is widely recognized that illegal fishing undermines efforts to conserve and manage fish stocks."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.