Fisheries observers deaths at sea, human rights, and responsibilities of fisheries organisations

23 July 2020

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) welcomes the focus of the Human Rights at Sea report, Fisheries Observer Deaths at Sea, Human Rights & Responsibilities of Fisheries Organisations. The report raises awareness of a critically important issue – observer deaths at sea and more generally, the safety and welfare of those who work on the high seas. It is very timely given the growing awareness and call for action to address unacceptable labour practices and labour abuses at sea.

The Human Rights at Sea report profiles the involvement of several organisations - including the MSC. The MSC does not require fisheries to work with observers as a part of its certification requirements – but in practise, many fisheries rely on observers to collect the essential evidence needed for sustainable fisheries management - especially in remote parts of the world. This is the case in the Western Pacific where the PNA fishery requires that every trip for MSC certified tuna has an observer on board.

The report focuses on the recent tragic death of Eritera Aati Kaierua, a Kiribati observer on the Taiwanese registered and flagged tuna purse seiner, Win Far 636, that was on a voyage to catch tuna from the MSC certified PNA skipjack and yellowfin free school tuna fishery in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.

The death of Eritara Aati Kaierua is a tragic and shocking event. It is the first death of an observer on a vessel authorised under the PNA vessel day scheme to fish for MSC eligible certified catch. And it is now subject to an ongoing police investigation. Two companies operating in the region hold fisheries and Group MSC Chain of Custody Certificates for the PNA tuna fishery – the Western Pacific Sustainable Tuna Alliance (WPSTA) and the PNA Office. As soon they became aware of Eritara Aati Kaierua’s death, both companies suspended the Win Far 636 from the program and took steps to ensure that no catch from the vessel subsequently entered the supply chain as MSC certified catch. The vessel remains tied up in port and we continue to follow the ongoing police investigation into the case closely.

However, the report also highlights other observer deaths and disappearances in the region that the authors state occurred on five ‘MSC certified vessels’. We believe this is misleading. None of these deaths took place on trips for MSC certified catch. As we informed the author of the report several times before publication, MSC does not certify vessels – it certifies fisheries.

Whilst this may seem like a technicality, in fact there is an important distinction to be made between vessels which are listed on the PNA’s fishery certificate and those which actually go onto fish for MSC certified catch.

Many vessels are listed on the PNA’s MSC certificate, but in order to fish for MSC eligible catch, they have to apply for a separate authorisation and conform to additional requirements for these trips. The PNA maintains records of every MSC certified trip. In fact, two of the boats featured in the report, Dolores and Western Pacific, were listed on the PNA MSC certificate but had never actually ever caught MSC certified catch. At the time the deaths took place – apart from the Win Far 636 - there was no connection to the MSC at all. This clarification, although of little comfort to the families seeking closure for their deaths, at least will reassure consumers that no seafood connected to any of these deaths carries the MSC’s blue fish tick.

Each death is a tragedy, a life lost and a family devastated. But it is misleading for the report to imply that these further incidents are linked to eligible MSC fishing activities. We have written to the report’s author requesting that these inaccuracies are addressed.

The MSC’s preliminary responses to the ten recommendations in the report

Turning now to the recommendations in the report - the report makes several constructive recommendations. The MSC’s preliminary responses to these recommendations are set out below.

The MSC wholly endorses and supports Recommendations 1, 2, 9 and 10 of the report:

· transparent and unimpeded investigations into all cases of human rights violations of observers and crew;

· the involvement of Interpol, alongside Flag, Port and Coastal States, in investigations, where appropriate (it might not be appropriate if incidents occur within a single jurisdiction)

· more joined up reporting by fisheries management organisations of incidents of human rights and labour rights abuses

· expeditious compensation of families following the death of an observer at sea, with effective insurance in place.

The MSC agrees that any observer death, disappearance, illness or injury should be immediately reported to the Observer programs (Recommendation 3). Regarding the disclosure of vessel monitoring system (VMS) data, however, we note that such data are often subject to national privacy or data protection legislation. See further related points below with regard to Recommendation 5.

The MSC also agrees that independent personal communication devices can help to ensure the safety of observers (Recommendation 4). In practical terms, for coastal fisheries, the availability of mobile phones may be sufficient, but for offshore operations, this would necessitate satellite phone or satellite internet connections being made available.

Recommendations 5, 6 and 7 are specifically directed at fisheries certifications organisations.

Whilst we support the intent of Recommendation 5, to encourage transparency of fishing operations, we do not support the recommendations as currently drafted.

Automatic identification systems (AIS) should be on at all times, as the report notes: this is primarily an international maritime safety requirement. However, VMS data is often subject to national privacy or data protection legislation and provides a vital tool for flag states to inform their fisheries management monitoring and control and surveillance activities. The public disclosure of such information does not always promote more effective fisheries management.

With regard to observer coverage and electronic monitoring, we again support the intent of this recommendation to encourage greater transparency of fishing operations. However, we do not support the mandating of two observers per vessel or one observer plus on-board electronic monitoring. The MSC Standard is not prescriptive but focused on outcomes and the levels of assurance required to ensure Standard requirements are being met. There are over four million fishing vessels operating globally. Very few fisheries have such a level of monitoring. The costs for many would likely be prohibitive and many vessels could simply not accommodate two observers. In the case of the fishing vessel Feng Xiang 818, for instance, an observer death still occurred despite the presence of a second observer and on-board CCTV. Such a requirement could also be disproportionally difficult and costly for fisheries in the Global South.

Recommendation 6 is concerned with the maintenance of centralised, up to date vessel lists including listings of suspended or excluded vessels. We support the intent of this recommendation.

The MSC currently requires all MSC certified fisheries to identify publicly the vessels that operate under their certificates. We have permitted flexibility in how this information is maintained to enable it to be updated as needed by those who are responsible for the certificates. We also recognise the importance of vessel lists being transparent more readily accessible. There is room for improvement.

The MSC has commenced work with the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) on a joint project to create a list that merges information from ISSF’s proactive vessel register and the vessel lists associated with MSC certified tuna fisheries. We hope to launch a tool in the coming months that lists vessels that operate as part of MSC certified tuna fisheries.

Recommendation 7 recommends that any vessel accused of human rights violations should effectively be suspended until investigations are concluded.

The MSC’s current policies on labour rights abuses are as follows: we require all MSC certified fisheries to report publicly on the measures they are taking to address forced and child labour. We also require that any entity convicted of forced or child labour is removed from any MSC certified fishery. We require evidence of conviction to ensure the presumption of innocence and that due process is followed. While this approach provides a mechanism to deal with the most extreme labour abuses, we recognise the need for additional tools to deal with human rights abuses at sea. Accordingly, we are investigating other measures and approaches which are outside the scope of the MSC’s environmental program, to address human and labour rights issues within the seafood industry.

An area being investigated with expert organisations is that of grievance mechanisms, aimed at giving workers greater redress against labour violations. the MSC’s engagement in this work is in the early stages. Many organisations have been actively investigating establishing such mechanisms which would strengthen workers’ protection, if widely adopted internationally, across the entire sustainable seafood industry.

The MSC is also examining how we can develop a Policy of Association which would ensure that organisations which do not meet that policy would not be eligible for MSC certification. We will be moving ahead with this in the next few months. It is likely to be a two phase process. We already exclude entities which have been convicted of forced or child labour, in the short-term we will take steps to expand this to include entities convicted of observer abuse, or vessels listed as illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) on regional fisheries management organisation (RFMO) blacklists. We will also work to develop a mechanism linked to our General Certification Requirements in the first instance, hopefully by the end of this year.

Recommendation 8 is directed to all fisheries management organisations, fisheries certification organisations and bodies, and fisheries management platforms. It states that all should have public-facing policies that reflect published business strategies to include fundamental human rights protections and necessary safeguards for all workers in their area of influence, reflecting international legislative and voluntary human rights and labour rights norms.

While the MSC has several labour related policies, as noted above, on forced and child labour, and a recently issued statement reflecting our corporate commitment to the principles of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Fundamentally, the MSC’s Fisheries Standard is an environmental standard, but nonetheless, it wholly condemns the violation of human rights. It is committed to working with others that are engaged in trying to develop measures and approaches which are outside the scope of its environmental program, to address human and labour rights issues within the seafood industry.

Supporting research into improving observer safety

The MSC’s Ocean Stewardship Fund (OSF), launched in 2018, aims to accelerate progress in sustainable fishing. The MSC has committed 5% annually of all royalties from MSC certified product sales to support this fund, along with £1 million seed funding.

As part of our contribution to the collective efforts of the industry, human rights NGOs, governments and regulators to improve observer safety, the MSC is allocating £100,000 of funding for projects and initiatives aimed at improving observer safety at sea.

The funds will be deployed through the MSC’s Ocean Stewardship Fund in the next round, which opens for applications in September 2020. This tranche of funding will also support initiatives focused on the use of electronic monitoring and other technologies designed to support observers and deliver assurance of fishing operations.

Funding disclosures

While the report discloses that World Wise Foods funded the Human Rights at Sea investigation, we are disappointed that the report did not disclose that World Wise Foods’ Chairman is also Chairman of the International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF). The IPNLF is also featured as one of the case studies in the report. Nor does the report disclose that World Wise Foods sources tuna from the MSC certified Maldivian pole and line fishery which is a commercial competitor to the PNA tuna fishery and has actively supported campaigns against the PNA tuna fishery over several years. For the credibility of the report, we think it would have been appropriate to disclose these connections more fully, in order to avoid the perception of the conflict of interest.


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