Lulu Ning Hui, 23 Aug 2021
China, Taiwan, Kiribati
Tekarara Kabangaki and her four young children, who live in the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, are quite used to their father being away. As a fishery observer, he often spent months aboard fishing vessels, monitoring their practices and making sure they followed rules and regulations.
Whenever he had to fly out for a deployment, the family would wait outside the wire fence at the airport to wave goodbye as he boarded the plane. His youngest child, Bebe, has been eagerly awaiting his return since their last farewell.
Sadly, it is a reunion that will never happen.
The father, Eritara Aati Kaierua, died in March 2020 while performing his duty aboard a Taiwanese tuna-fishing vessel, Win Far 636. He was 40 years old.
Over a year and a half later, amid conflicting reports and a lack of transparency from those involved, his family is still waiting for answers on how he died.
All they have is a photo of him at the time of his death, lying face up on the ground, with drops of blood staining his T-shirt.
“We are still blocked from seeing the pathologist report, which was already seen by the [fishing] company,” said Nickora Kaierua, Eritara’s sister, speaking from the Solomon Islands, where she works as an airline engineer.
“I miss him. He was my best childhood friend. When we were little, I dreamt of becoming a pilot flying in the sky; he wanted to become a captain sailing at sea.”
Eritara’s death drew international attention to the risks faced by fishery observers, who are hired by governments or regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) to be placed on fishing boats to collect scientific data on commercial fisheries, and ensure the crew does not engage in illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing.
Essentially, they have to observe and document fishing operations and also report potentially illegal practices — which can be highly-destructive to marine ecosystems — all while being stuck on a boat with the perpetrators for months at a time.
Underpinning all this is the fact that IUU fishing is often linked to organised crime. On its own, IUU fishing accounts for one-fifth of global catch, worth approximately US23.5 billion. But it can also be a conduit for human trafficking, and the smuggling of illicit drugs, wildlife, and weapons.
According to Eritara’s family, he had reported being offered bribes on two of his voyages, and had been threatened aboard a fishing vessel in 2019 after he reported the crew for shark finning and exceeding its tuna fishing quota.
“Fishery observers protect the needs of vulnerable communities and defend our human right to a healthy environment. Yet companies, governments, and multilateral organizations continue to fail to protect them from intimidation, abuse, and death,” read a statement from Greenpeace USA in response to his death.
But Eritara is far from the only to have suffered. From 2010 to 2020, as many as 14 fishing observers have died at sea, at least half of them under suspicious circumstances.
As part of an Environmental Reporting Collective collaborative investigation into IUU fishing, journalists representing The Reporter spoke with a dozen observers — many on condition of anonymity out of fear for their lives — as well as Eritara’s family to see if anything is being done to protect the people in one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
Interviews with observers
Click on the cards below to read the observers’ stories (all names have been changed to protect the observers involved):
The death of Eritara
Kiribati is a small island nation with a population of just 119,000. But with its 32 atolls and one island scattered across the central Pacific Ocean, it has an exclusive economic zone of 3.5 million square kilometers — larger than the whole of India — and the largest tuna fishery area in the world.
And yet, it is the poorest country in Oceania, relying heavily on revenue from fishing licenses and foreign remittances from emigrant workers, such as Eritara.
Eritara and his siblings were orphaned at an early age, with him and his sister Nickora becoming the breadwinners of the family. While being a fishery observer is not everyone’s idea of a dream job, those from Kiribati can earn around AU$60 (US$44) a day at sea, significantly higher than the estimated minimum wage of AU$1.60 (US$1.17) per hour.
Growing up, Eritara wanted to be a seafarer just like his father. After graduating from the Marine Training Centre in Kiribati, he spent several years working on German container ships, often for 10 months at a time.
On February 13, 2020, he boarded the Taiwanese-flagged Win Far 636 as a fishery observer. According to documents viewed by The Reporter, there were six Taiwanese crew members on board, including captain Hwang Jiunn Shyong and chief officer Hsia Pi Tsung. There were also 33 fishers from Vietnam and the Philippines, and one American helicopter pilot.
The ship, a 30-year-old iron-hulled vessel weighing over 1,000 tons, cost about NT$700 million (US$25 million), and had been fishing for tuna in the Central and Western Pacific Ocean for years.
But on March 3, 2020, Eritara was found dead in his cabin. At 6:00am that day, Eritara was still recording his fishing log as usual. "Searching Commence," he wrote.
A Kiribati-designated pathologist initially classified his death as a suspected homicide due to a severe blow to the head. But several months later, a New Zealand pathologist hired by the fishing company — who had never seen the body in person — reclassified it as death from natural causes, likely due to hypertension.
The Kiribati government declined to provide further details as the investigation was still ongoing.
"I think there's so much money involved in the transhipping… There are sovereign rights involved, whereas China or Taiwan is giving money to Kiribati to fish in their waters,” said Patrick Carroll, an experienced fishery observer and a member of the U.S.-based Association for Professional Observers, who has closely followed the case.
“I don't think that Kiribati wants to get caught in this problem with their biggest consumers, Taiwan and China. So it's easier to lie, and let it just be a mystery, than to resolve the crime."
Nevertheless, the case started gaining attention. The Guardian reported about it, highlighting the cases of two other Kiribati observers — Antin Tamwabeti and Moanniki Nawii — who had died in 2019 and 2017; while Greenpeace publicly called for the United Nations to ensure a thorough investigation into what it referred to as a “suspected murder”.
The former head of Kiribati’s Criminal Investigation Division Mamara Ubaitoi said in an email in October 2020 that the investigation was still ongoing, and the authorities were not satisfied with the report from the New Zealand pathologist hired by the Win Far Fisheries Group.
“We are still looking for an independent pathologist who has no connection to the company,” said Ubaitoi. Almost a year later, the case is still pending, with the Attorney General’s office waiting for a new pathologist report from Fiji, according to current Criminal Investigation Division head Tavita Meita.
The United States-based Association for Professional Observers (APO), was founded in 1995, and currently has around 1,600 members from all over the world.
Liz Mitchell, the current president of the APO, has been an observer for 25 years. As one of the few women in this male-dominated industry, she not only has to cope with the hardships of the job, but with harassment as well. She has been advocating for the rights of observers since becoming APO president in 2000.
Mitchell told The Reporter that investigating deaths and disappearances of observers is particularly frustrating because the people who report such cases are usually not governments or shipping companies, but mostly NGOs or other observers.
“We don’t know how many observers have actually died or went missing while working. For example, we only learned of three other Kiribati observers’ deaths after I started investigating Eritara’s death,” she said.
Concern within the industry over the safety of observers peaked in 2015 when American observer Keith Davis went missing while on deployment. A well-loved member of the APO, Davis had been actively campaigning for better protections for observers.
Davis had been assigned by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC) to observe the Panama-flagged Victoria 168, a cargo ship — sometimes called a mother ship — ferrying catch back to shore for a fleet of fishing boats.
When a fishing vessel transfers its catch to a mother ship at sea, the process must be monitored and signed off by an observer. As part of this process, on September 10, 2015, Davis boarded a Taiwan-owned fishing vessel, Chung Kuo 818, off the west coast of Peru and completed his inspection.
Later that day, the crew of the Victoria 168 realised that Davis was missing. The U.S. Coast Guard started searching an area equivalent to 50,000 football fields a full 30 hours after he had gone missing, but there was no sign of him.
A 2017 investigation by Reveal News raised further questions about Davis’ death. The Panama government had closed the case within a year without issuing an investigation report, despite Davis having had several encounters with the Chung Kuo fleet.
On August 18, he appeared to have been threatened by the crew of the fishing vessel Chung Kuo 39 when he boarded it to inspect its catch.
On August 22, he suspected that another fishing vessel, also named Chung Kuo, was deliberately covering up the catch of northern bluefin tuna and took at least 167 photos, including 50 photos of fish with heads and fins removed, making it difficult to identify the species. Northern bluefin tuna is the most valuable and scarce tuna species and has the most stringent fishing quota.
On August 30, he reported the death of an Indonesian fisherman on Chung Kuo 858.
It was later learned that before Davis disappeared, a Victoria 168 officer came to his cabin and asked him to sign a document.
Victoria 168 was renamed Kai Hang 168 in 2019 after the incident.
Davis's death shocked the observer community and sparked international outrage, leading to calls for reform.
Mitchell and Davis were close friends and colleagues. Although it has been six years since his disappearance, Mitchell still shed tears when talking about him. "If it could happen to Davis, it could happen to any observer,” she said.
Bubba Cook, another good friend of Davis and the Western and Central Pacific Tuna Programme Manager for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), has been actively pushing for improved safety standards for observers in meetings with the Western and Central Pacific Commission (WCPFC).
Finally, in 2017, WCPFC amended its safety standards, including a requirement that all observers have to be provided with two-way communication equipment that comes with an SOS button. The device would allow observers to contact their coordinators back on the shore without permission from the captain.
Other regional fisheries management organizations, such as the IATTC, also added it as part of its new regulations.
"Because of Davis' death, there is a pressure on regional fisheries organizations to improve observer protection as soon as possible," Cook said in a phone interview from New Zealand.
Hiep Tran, a U.S. observer with 10-year experience, oversees the Eastern Pacific Ocean cargo vessels under the IATTC's observer program. He communicated with us via Facebook from a Taiwan-owned, Vanuatu-flagged vessel, saying he can now keep his supervisor updated and get a response within hours. The support he receives from shore-based units gives him security and makes him one of the few observers who were willing to be interviewed using their real names.
"After Davis left, the organization drastically improved the communications equipment for U.S. observers to avoid any case like Davis’," wrote Tran, from 300 miles off the coast of French Polynesia, attaching a photo of the communications equipment he was given.
A video of Keith Davis on a deck of a cargo ship, singing a song he composed for his observer friends who died before him. Video credit: Hiep Tran
Even after observers’ safety standards were reformed, conditions can still be perilous, especially for observers from Pacific Island nations.
The Reporter spent several months interviewing observers from Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and other Pacific island countries and found that even though RFMOs have safety standards on paper, most of them are poorly enforced in the region.
Pacific Island observers monitor fishing vessels from many countries. The region supplies 60% of the world's tuna. When they report violations by fishing vessels, the ship owners can be immediately required to stop operations or possibly be fined millions of dollars. But despite these high stakes, Pacific Island observers do not have the support system from the shore like observers in the U.S. or under the IATTC.
The Pacific Island observers we reached out to were keen to talk to us, though they all requested to remain anonymous to avoid getting in trouble.
Abel (not his real name) has worked as an observer for 10 years, spending most of it on Taiwanese longliners.
“The death of any observer would significantly affect us," he said. He emphasized that the frequency of threats and harassment against observers in recent years has returned to the early days when the regional observer programme just started. “Our rights have long been ignored, and the investigations into the deaths of observers have been disregarded.”
Reported cases of harassment of observers at work increased from 35 cases in 2013 to 84 in 2015, with observers saying the real numbers are likely much higher due to underreporting.
With tuna populations decreasing, shipowners are also taking more risks to ensure they make a profit, often at the expense of the observers’ safety, according to Abel.
Given all these risks, why does Abel continue to work as an observer? “I want my kids to have fish to eat,” he said.
"When I'm on a Taiwanese ship, I just try to be as nice as possible to the captain and crew,” he added.
Rossi (not his real name), another observer from the Pacific Islands, has been assigned to monitor ships from Taiwan, China, South Korea, and Japan over the past 20 years. He has witnessed dozens of illegal fishing practices and violations, experienced crew fights on board, and been offered bribes by shipping companies.
“The condition of the fishing boats in Taiwan and China is generally worse than those from South Korea and Japan,” said Rossi. Aside from the poorer food, water, general hygiene and working conditions, he said Taiwanese and Chinese ships tend to have larger crews from different countries, which often leads to more conflict due to cultural differences.
Given the high operating costs involved in being out at sea, fishing companies try their best to avoid being fined, and some do so by bribing the observers.
“The bribe can range from a US$300 meal allowance to US$5,000 per trip," Rossi said. Pacific Island observers are paid between US$30 and US$75 per day at sea, relatively low compared to observers in other regions. Yet, they are often tempted with thousands of dollars at sea.
Another veteran Kiribati observer told us that in 2015, observers in his country went on strike for a week to demand better safety standards and pay. They refused to sail until the government finally agreed to increase observers’ pay, though the safety standards have still not improved.
He said New Zealand has provided funding to the government of Kiribati to purchase personal communication devices for their more than 100 observers after the minimum safety standards were revised. “We have it, only in the news,” said the veteran, with a wry laugh.
Cook lamented the fact that despite the new safety standards, Eritara was not equipped with a communication device with a SOS button.
"We still lost Eritara in 2020. If the government of Kiribati had followed the rules, perhaps this tragedy would not have happened, ” said Cook.
Loeru Tokantetaake, the chief of the Kiribati Police Department, said via email that the investigation into Eritara’s death is still open, even though the vessel had left Kiribati harbour in mid-October 2020. Win Far Fishery Group, the shipowner of Win Far 636, paid AU$100,000 (US$73,000) to leave the port and restart fishing operations in the economic waters of the Solomon Islands.
The Taiwan Fisheries Agency (TFA) said in May 2020 that it had cooperated fully with the Kiribati police in the investigation of the vessel's company, in accordance with judicial procedures.
After attempting to contact Win Far Fishery Group several times, a spokesperson from the company responded to us in a phone call.
"We are very sorry about the death of Eritara. We are doing our best to keep a low profile and cooperate with the investigation by the Kiribati government, but due to the non-disclosure principle, we cannot provide any details.”
The Director of the Taiwan Fishery Agency, Chih-Sheng Chang, responded to The Reporter on the progress of the investigation.
"If our fishing vessels have done something wrong, they should follow the justice system. There is no need to protect, evade or cover up wrongdoings. But if it [Eritara’s death] is due to other reasons, the owner should not be blamed.
"It seems that in the end they [the Kiribati government] permitted Win Far to leave because there was no evidence of violence or unreasonable treatment on board. The message we received from the owner, the videotape is clear, no one went into his room during the whole process.
“The first autopsy report was a presumption (of homicide), and then the second report, there was no evidence of suspicion of homicide. If there is such (evidence) in Kiribati, we will do what we have to do when the vessel is back in Taiwan. But there is no evidence yet."
To date, 11 of the 14 observer deaths have not been properly investigated — or investigated at all. Here is a summary of their cases:
Observer deaths, 2010-2020
Larry Gavin / Kevin
James Junior Numbaru
Edison Geovanny Valencia Bravo
Eritara Aati Kaierua
Furthermore, only 4 out of the 17 RFMOs worldwide, including the WCPFC, have processes in place to deal with the death or disappearance of observers. The lack of transparency has made investigations particularly difficult.
“There is no way to improve the problem if the reported numbers [of deaths and harassment of observers] do not reflect the reality of the situation and if there is not enough transparent information available to the investigation,” said Mitchell.
Eritara’s family kept asking the police for the autopsy report, but they were repeatedly denied access to it, while Win Far Fishery Group was able to hire a pathologist and an attorney to obtain the report.
"They [Win Far Fishery Group] are powerful and smart, and we're just a poor family that wants a reasonable ending,” said Nickora, Eritara’s sister.
"We don't want any observer or family to have to go through the same pain that we did. Whether it's an accident or a murder, the death of an observer is always ignored."