22 Sep 2015

Disappearance of Fisheries Observer from Vessel in the Pacific Ocean

Fisheries observers play a critical role in protecting fish stocks (image R Wanless)
By Rory Crawford

Since 10 September, Keith Davis, an American fisheries observer, has been missing from a Panamanian-flagged vessel off the coast of Peru.

Keith was last seen at 14.50 local time aboard the Victoria No. 168, a transhipment vessel which receives catch from fishing vessels, taking it ashore for processing and sale. The vessel had finished transshipping fish from Chung Kuo No. 818, a Taiwanese vessel operating under a Vanuatu flag, at 16.05, and Keith could not be found to sign off the transhipment, one of the standard duties of an observer.

At this point, a search was initiated for Keith, and both the Peruvian and Ecuadorian Coast Guards were notified. The US Coast Guard was informed by Keith’s employer (MRAG), and they assisted in a search and rescue operation which was terminated 72 hours after Keith was reported missing. Subsequently, Victoria No. 168 was ordered into port in Panama, arriving on the 20th of September, and is undergoing inspection by investigators.

Fisheries observers like Keith play a critical role in protecting fish stocks and helping us assess the ‘collateral damage’ of fishing – including non-target bycatch of seabirds, turtles and marine mammals. They observe the fishing operation and collect data on the catch and how fishing is conducted. Our work to push for seabird conservation measures in the tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organisations fundamentally requires fisheries observers to ensure that measures are implemented and effective.

Our understanding of how well we are preserving some of the sea’s most charismatic denizens – albatross, turtles, dolphins, tuna – hinges on the information that observers risk personal harm to collect. The job of an observer is thus one of the most important in marine conservation, but also one of the most dangerous – it is no secret that spending large amounts of time at sea can put your life in danger, as the tragic deaths of numerous fishermen and observers each year attests to. 

The role of an observer can also bring them into conflict with crew and skippers, sometimes resulting in harassment or threats. This type of interaction, reported by a number of long-serving observers, is clearly unacceptable, but can be difficult to document and resolve given the nature of the work, involving long trips to sea without fellow observers for support.

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The investigation into Keith’s disappearance is ongoing and we believe it is vital to raise awareness, in the hope that it might help Keith’s family find out what has happened to him. Further, we believe that the role of observers and the risks they take must not go unreported.

Please share this article and spread the message of the importance of observers – and keeping them safe.

Keith’s family have set up a Facebook group for him and news of his disappearance on CNN.

Keith also wrote and performed a song for fisheries observers that have passed, recorded on a transhipment vessel.