Eyes on WCPFC 13 in Fiji as FSM calls for Observer Safety, conditions, meets with high-level support

Pohnpei, FSMMomentum is building for stronger protections for human observers keeping watch on foreign fishing boats in Pacific waters, as Fiji prepares to host the annual Pacific Tuna Commission (WCPFC) meeting this December. 
The safety and working conditions of Observers has again come to the fore, with Pacific Fisheries Ministers backing a call from the Federated States of Micronesia to urgently prioritise safety and working conditions for Observers when they set the standards for access and conditions for fishing vessels in Pacific waters.
“Not doing anything is not an option,” FSM’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Lorin Robert told the recently ended 13th FFCMIN in Vanuatu, “As the people responsible for managing these resources, we are duty-bound to ensure we take measures today, with all the electronic means and sea safety tools at our disposal, to ensure the welfare and safety of our observers. We cannot wait to have an incident that could result in serious injury or death to happen before we take action. The time is now.”
The FSM intervention came as the ministerial meeting looked at revising Regional Minimum Terms and Conditions (MTCs), which also includes what vessel owners, captains and crews do to ensure the welfare and safety of Pacific observers on their fishing vessels in FFA EEZs. Observers record what they see on board and are a vital pair of eyes ensuring the rules are followed. Their reports also provide independent data guiding the science on tuna stocks.
“We’ve asked for stronger cooperation for Observer Programs across all levels, and want the (WCPFC) Tuna Commission to take stronger measures—that is our intention,” says Robert. 
He recalled how FSM was the first developing Pacific nation to develop a national observer program, well before the Law of the Sea became a reality. 
“In the past, we put observers on vessels and didn’t hear from them until they returned, months later. Back then, there were no means to communicate with them when they are in distress or needed to be taken off the ship. We have been lucky that no observers were lost back then,” he told the meeting.
But from a handful of observers back then, FSM now runs an observer program of up to 80 and has seen the rise of national observer programs across the region, putting hundreds of individuals on fishing vessels across the Pacific.
“We all collectively, through various means, have invested in the observer program as these people are the very eyes out there in the ocean, placed on foreign fishing vessels, or domestic vessels, to perform a difficult task-, that is to monitor compliance with our conservation and management measures,” Robert said.
“They are the real tools of compliance for us which in turn, keep fishing vessels honest and comply with our terms and conditions. However, in doing so, this places our observers at great risk and danger. They work in difficult conditions and environments. They don’t speak the same language and because they perform a compliance role, they are prone to intimidation and harassment if not threats from reporting non-compliant activities.”
“This in our view must be addressed to ensure that our observers feel safe and protected, or at least, they have a means to communicate to us their situation, and that we can take swift action.”
“In addition, we hold vessels and operators totally responsible for their safety while they are on board their boats. These observers, young and old, have families to return home to and support at home. If something happens to them, something happens to their families at home.”
“These are our people and these are our fisheries. Let’s take steps to prevent harm to our observers by taking decisions that protect them and ensure they return to their families.”
The call from FSM struck a roundtable chord, raising responses from all members highlighting the need for continued advocacy and action from the national, regional and international levels including the WCPFC, which will be hosted in Nadi this December.
As the FFCMIN ended, Robert said he was “very pleased with the reaction and response from the meeting. I was not surprised,” he says of the unanimous support from all other member nations at the table, “it was a normal, human, Pacific response to the issues raised.”
At the technical level, FSM’s National Oceanic Resource Management Authority (NORMA) are taking up the call. Says NORMA Director Eugene Pangelinan: “Our ministers have recognized that we must take steps to advocate strongly for the welfare and safety of our Observers at WCPFC, and that’s now been achieved in the harmonized minimum terms and conditions,” he says, “now that FFA members have responded to the call, we will take it to the WCPFC to do the same, placing Observer welfare and safety as a matter of priority."
-NORMA Press Release.