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Living at ground level, Part 1 – Stan's 'PNG factor'

Fishing’s dark side: the cases of missing NFA observers

Vietnam-blueboatRAYMOND SIGIMET

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 [2017] 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.


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Elizabeth Mitchell

This is bigger than just PNG. Agencies should be transparent with all fisheries observer deaths, including so-called suicides, since that has been used in the past to explain observer disappearances.

They need to explain the circumstances involved, the investigative protocols followed, and how they arrived at their findings so that the memories of these observers can be honored with meaningful change to protect observers.

Here are the ones we are aware of, though none of them have received even a mention in official reports from the agencies:

**Edison Valencia (Ecuador) 2018
**James Junior Numbaru (PNG) 2017
**Usaia Masibalavu (Fiji) 2016
**Larry (some say Garry) Gavin (some say Kevin) 2016 (some say 2014 and that it was his second trip with NFA, so they did know him). (PNG)
**Wesley Talia (PNG) 2015
**Keith Davis (USA) 2015
**3 observers (Chile) - no information except that it happened in "the last few years".
**Charlie Lasisi (PNG) 2010
**"Many suicides" - no additional information

The shameful lack of information from authorities keeps us from arriving at meaningful change to protect these observers and offer the support that they desperately require.

The friends and family of the disappeared whom I have spoken with all say the same thing: "We are not getting any information from the authorities." There is no closure, no body, no report of what the observer experienced on their last trip (i.e. what were they reporting while on board prior to their disappearance?).

And from what I've heard, there has been little compensation. In absence of information we cannot arrive at creative solutions and the pain and resentment continues to fester.

The WCPFC safety measures passed in 2016 are still not being implemented in the WCPFC Regional Observer Programmes.

The vessel James Junior Numbaru disappeared from did not follow the regulations as was reported. The Feng Xiang 818 destroyed evidence prior to being investigated (deleted all but three 40-minute sections of film from their 12 CCTV cameras; clothes). Many questions remain unanswered.

Observers are not being informed about the observer safety regulations that were passed in the WCPFC. Kiribati observers still have no communication devices. Observers in at least 3 Regional Observer Programs I have spoken with are not receiving information about the Emergency Action Plan should they have an emergency.

We need to pull our heads out of the sand. Their vessel placement meetings are a farce and the vessels are unsafe. No Observer safety measures are required in other RFMOs so the situation is possibly even more dire elsewhere.

Just reported today that 35,000 pounds of cocaine were found on fishing vessels in the Eastern Pacific. Observers are in the middle of this.

This is a crisis. We must demand transparency from the coordinators, employers and agencies that are sweeping the information into a dark vat.

Otherwise we will continue to spin our wheels, wasting our time trying to figure out where the truth is - arguing senselessly over numbers of the disappeared.

Meanwhile these perpetrators are still fishing. Why are *they* being protected?

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Francisco for your comment. The link you've provided was informative. It is also noteworthy that responsible authorities are taking action in regard to the risks associated with the job specification of observers.

This article is a follow up on the issue of missing observers from PNG that came to light in early 2018. These cases were reported by the PNG media.

This article was not meant to sensationalise or politicise but to bring to light the risks that accompanies young observers out in the sea doing a job that has different foreign business interest and high monetary value.

The figure of 18 was stated on the floor of the PNG parliament and reported by the media (see

The descriptions of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the PNG observers was reported by the 'Post-Courier' on 11 January 2019.

Rashmii Bell

"The remains of Charlie Lasisi were later discovered bound in chains off the coast of West Sepik."

This horrific, heartbreaking detail and not figures is indicative enough of the need for NFA's urgent action, inquiry and review of their management plan frameworks. These Papua New Guinean men and their families are deserving of justice and overdue answers.

Thanks for the insight Francisco. An informative post on what on-the-job entails for observers.

An important issue and thanks for revisiting and continuing to highlight, Raymond,

I revisited KJ's February 2018 article and am saddened that a year on the Post-Courier has run another article with no apparent progress by NFA.

Particularly where foreign entities are involved, weak regulation by PNG management seems an increasing burden to the well being and livelihoods of Papua New Guineans.

Vincent Namekat

Regardless of what the correct number is of PNGians lost on duty the issue requires NFA's utmost attention and action. More resources like choppers and planes required for spot checks of the foreign fishing vessels.

Francisco Blaha

The 18 is a baseless number, four are the confirmed and in the case of one of them there is footage of his fall. The total for the region included non-PNG citizens is six in the last nine years.

If you are seriously interested on observers issues I humbly suggest you read this blog entry:

It sounds like you are using their untimely deaths for politics, is not fair on their memories and families. I appreciate you may have good intentions, but sensationalism on their deaths is not the way to go.

I have assured Francisco that there was no political intent in the article - KJ

Simon Davidson

This a serious issue and it needs international attention as well. Are the PNG Fisheries Authority officials bribed so they are turning a blind eye? If nothing is done to address this issue, more young men will lose their lives.

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