DAGUA - A high risk job undertaken by young Papua New Guineans has been working for the National Fisheries Authority (NFA) as a fishing observer on foreign fishing vessels.
A fishing observer enforces standards, records catch volumes and prevents the exploitation of fish stocks by fishing vessels within PNG’s territorial waters.
Fishing observers live with foreign fishermen aboard foreign-owned fishing vessels on the open seas for weeks on end.
The NFA fishing observer program started in mid-2000 and PNG has one of the largest observer programs in the South Pacific. Currently there are about 65 observers stationed on fishing vessels in PNG waters.
The central task of observers is to ensure fishing vessels operate in a sustainable and responsible manner within the National Tuna Fishery Management Plan. This framework covers longline, purse-seine and pole & line fishing.
There are about 130 fishing vessels operating in PNG waters, which has fishing access agreements with Taiwan, Korea, the Philippines and China and a multilateral treaty with the USA. The catch from these vessels is divided about 50:50 between onshore installations in PNG and the foreign purse-seine vessels that catch most of the tuna for overseas processors.
PNG has the largest commercial tuna fishing zone in the South Pacific, an area exceeding 2.4 million square kilometres with the potential of an estimated annual catch of 250, 000 to 300, 000 metric tonnes. PNG waters account for about 10% of the global fish catch.
Fishing observers have contributed millions of kina in taxes and fees to the NFA which is one of the few government entities that continues to pay dividends to the government. Fishing in PNG waters is a lucrative business for foreign owned fishing vessels supplying both onshore and offshore processors.
With the high value for fish products, unscrupulous vessels try to bypass sustainable management practice in their race to meet demand and make as much money as they can.
Last week, the Post-Courier newspaper reported on some harrowing cases of missing Papua New Guinean observers on fishing vessels.
Charlie Lasisi was reported missing from a Madang based RD Tuna fishing vessel in March 2010 near the PNG-Indonesian border. The vessel captain claimed that the last time anyone had seen Charlie was when he was drinking with the crew and then left to go to the mess. Six Filipino crew members were charged with his murder but were acquitted because of lack of evidence. The remains of Charlie Lasisi were later discovered bound in chains off the coast of West Sepik.
Observer Wesley Talia was reported missing in the waters of New Ireland in 2015. Locals later said they saw his body floating in the sea in clothing similar to ship’s standard clothing.
Larry Gavin was an observer who went missing at sea in 2016. Authorities had no records of which ship he was on, where he was from and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. No investigation was carried out to find the cause of his disappearance.
James Numbaru Junior went missing from his vessel in 2017, the crew alleging he had fallen overboard in waters of the coast of Nauru.
East Sepik governor Allan Bird raised the issue of Numbaru’s disappearance in parliament, saying it was his understanding that in 2017 up until July, four Papua New Guineans had been lost at sea without a trace.
“It is understood that before  there had been 18 Papua New Guineans lost at sea without a trace or any witness and as far as I know, no one has been found guilty of any foul play and this is strange,” Governor Bird said.
Around the same time, Numbaru’s case and related disappearances received considerable attention from a Twitter post and an article by Keith Jackson in PNG Attitude in an article entitled ‘On the trail of the missing PNG fisheries observers’.
The article highlighted the alarming cases of missing PNG fisheries observers on board foreign fishing vessels in recent years.
The recent Post Courier article stated there has been minimal PNG government intervention or inquiry so far into these disappearances and purported murders of PNG fishing observers.
Despite these disappearances being of “critical importance”, the government continues to adopt an “inherently negligent approach”. According to the article, the family of James Numbaru has taken it upon themselves to push for an inquiry into his death.
It is paramount that the government and NFA should take proactive measures and come up with protective laws and operational protocols to safeguard our young fishing observers. These men cannot just go missing if there is a suspicion of foul play by unscrupulous crews on fishing vessels.
In any reported case of a missing observer, a coronial inquest must be forthcoming. If there is proven foul play, criminal proceedings must be instituted against crews of fishing vessels and vessel owners who must be penalised and punished according to the laws of our country.
This increasing number of Papua New Guineans missing at sea on foreign vessels is alarming. Young fishing observers must be guaranteed their safety and protected from intimidation, threats, harassment or assault.
The missing cases of observers should not be covered up by authorities or swept under the carpet.
Justice must prevail to bring comfort to their families. In our pursuit of wealth and prosperity for our country, we must not disregard the patriotism and bravery of these young fishing observers. They went missing while performing a national role. Their job put them in a position where they are alone by themselves, far from their homes and out in unforgiving and sometimes hostile environment.
We cannot just honour them as heroes of the sea. We owe the families of these four men, and the many others whose names were not made public, closure and an explanation of the circumstances that led to the men’s untimely end.