The last great tuna rush in the world’s oceans is underway in the South Pacific. Tuna stocks are being plundered and those meant to protect them are dying mysterious deaths far from shore while fishermen live and die in appalling conditions.
At least eight fisheries observers — mostly recruited from South Pacific states with an interest in the exploitation of tuna — have died in mysterious circumstances over the past five years, based on reports and my own extensive research.
Fishermen too have fallen victim to the hunger for tuna that has sent thousands of boats into the region, with crews in virtual slavery, reluctant to admit the scale of the fishing going on — far in excess of what is agreed or approved.
Legal recourse on the high seas is a murky world where borders are hard to define and justice hard to come by — even in the case of murder.
A murder at sea
As 46-year-old skipper Xie Dingrong lay in his bunk he might have reflected on how tough it was to bring sashimi from the seas of the South Pacific to the world.
He had been on the ocean for months on a tuna longline fishing boat, one of the 15 million people working full time in what the International Labour Organization (ILO) reckons is one of world’s most dangerous jobs.
By 9pm on September 7, 2016, he was asleep in his cabin, on the high seas between Fiji and Easter Island. Six men, armed with fish gutting knives, scissors and a hammer, entered and, according to court documents, stabbed and slashed at Xie.
A post mortem report, presented to the Vanuatu Supreme Court nearly a year later, showed the dead skipper’s body had 41 wounds to his head, neck and body, causing massive hemorrhaging. He had what the report termed “defence wounds” on his arms and hands, showing he had fought to survive.
But despite his efforts, Xie’s wife back in Fuijan, China, would become a widow. Their 12-year-old child would start at middle-school without a father.
As Xie’s bleeding body was stacked in a freezer with tuna, the ship, Tunago 61, was 1,100 kilometres away from land. That was off Pitcairn Island, which more than 200 years earlier, had become a bolt hole for Fletcher Christian and the men of the 1789 Mutiny on the Bounty.
Despite the curious irony, according to myriad reports, including my own extensive investigations into the industry, conditions on many fishing boats these days could be considered worse than that aboard Royal Navy ships 200 years ago.
Xie, however, was both a victim and a perpetrator. Xie’s killers would face harsh justice in a country they had never been to, but it would also be revealed that Xie was, in part, responsible for his own fate thanks to sustained “discrimination, mistreatment and verbal and physical abuse … over an extended period,” of his crew, according to a Vanuatu supreme court document.
The environmental impact of wild capture fishing is often debated but the conditions for humans aboard those fishing boats seldom attract much interest. It is clear, however, that fishermen and independent observers are dying in the Pacific Ocean, the centre of the last great tuna gold rush.
Standing between order and high seas anarchy are independent observers who earn between US$30 and US$200 a day, depending on where they are working. Pacific Island observers are at the lower end of the scale. Governments and regional organisations post them onto some of the 4,600 fishing boats that operate in the Western and Central Pacific – the lucrative source of tuna.
Fishing on the scale now underway in the Pacific first began in the 1980s when Japanese scientists recognised the extent of the tuna resource. Until a ban on drift-netting in 1989, deep-sea fishing relied on relatively small numbers of American, Taiwanese and Japanese ships. Over the last two decades, there has been a huge rise in mainly Chinese and Taiwanese longliners that have, in turn, required hundreds of low-cost crews.
The 17-nation Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), based in the Solomon Islands, monitors the work of the observers who spend months at sea. The observers measure how much fish is caught, the type and methods used. They ensure fishing boats comply with a vast array of rules set by international organisations—such as not to take certain whale species—and various regional and national rules—such as how much of a particular species of tuna can be taken. There are also rules set by consumer advocacy groups that need to be monitored—such as prohibiting the catching of dolphins. In some areas observers also have to watch and report seabird catches.
“Observers are not police and have no power to enforce the rules,” the agency says in its explanatory guide.
There are 609 licensed ships, known as purse seiners, that carry observers. This is in part because they are bigger and usually more comfortable than the thousands of trawlers and boats hauling fishing lines. With onboard helicopters, seiners find large schools of tuna, and with an array of small boats, encircle them with large purse-like nets. Because they catch so much fish, it needs to be processed in a factory deck onboard.
The observers not only watch for infringements of various international and local rules for the waters they are in, but also take scientific data on fish size and health. Rules set by the 26-nation Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) require that five percent of the 3,105 longliner tuna boats must have observers. Actual coverage is around three percent, because the working and living conditions make it hard to find observers who are willing to sail on them.
The deaths of these observers has won little media coverage despite their colleagues fighting to keep the issue in focus.
At the end of last year WCPFC met in Fiji. It is charged with fisheries control on the high seas. For its Fiji gathering, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Pacific fisheries programme manager, Bubba Cook, created a “roll-of-honour” which he says he uses as “often as possible” to show the human cost of the work.
“I hate the fact that they are depersonalised as ‘observer’ as if they are just a piece of equipment,” Cook says.
The roll of observers is featured on the U.S.-based Association of Professional Observers (APO) website. But despite the association’s best efforts, the roll-call offers almost no information about the men, other than a name. It is also sparse on detail around the circumstances how each observer was lost at sea.
Charlie Lasisi, Wesley Talia and Larry Gavin from Papua New Guinea (PNG), are on the list, as is Usaia Masibalavu of Fiji and American Keith Davis.
Lasisi, 26, an observer with PNG’s National Fisheries Authority, was posted onto Dolores 838, a 28-year-old Philippines purse seiner.
The ship was fishing in the Bismarck Sea near the PNG/Indonesia border as part of its job in supplying Filipino-owned RD Tuna Canners Ltd in Madang, PNG. According to an independent PNG anti-corruption news website PNGExposedBlog, Lasisi complained that the ship was setting nets while dolphins were with the target fish – raising the potential of accidental catches.
PNG Police found that on March 29, 2010, Lasisi had disappeared. In PNG, some reports (also on PNGExposedBlog) said his body was found, Bubba Cook said in an interview with WikiTribune. But the official line, according to local media reports, including in The National, is that he was never discovered. Six Filipino crew were charged with Lasisi’s murder. According to PNG ExposedBlog, police had not acquired enough evidence to go to trial. Soon after the accused reached the PNG capital Port Moresby, they were freed and the case was dropped.
The Association of Professional Observers published an interview with Lasisi’s father in 2013.
“We don’t know why they killed him,” Lasisi’s father said. “The people that killed my son, their passports were taken from them in Port Moresby. Are they still in the county or have left, I wonder … if my son was killed on the boat, what is their punishment?”
Bubba Cook raised the issue at a WCPFC meeting in September 2015. He says the Philippines delegation head said he would do his own investigation. When he returned to the next meeting he announced he still did not know what happened.
Cook believes the Philippines delegate was distressed by what he had found out: “The best I can say is that the assumption was that Charlie was murdered and I am not afraid to say that all the evidence that I have seen points that way.”
This is backed up by a 2015 report by Dr Patricia Kailola, acting chief executive of Pacific Dialogue, a non-government organization, which addresses good governance, the rule of law, and human rights.
She states in her discussion paper delivered at the Pacific Tuna Forum: “A Papua New Guinea fisheries observer, Charles Lasisi, was murdered several years ago: his remains were recovered west of Wewak (north-western PNG); his legs/body were bound with chains.”
Body seen floating
Fisheries observer Wesley Talia disappeared off New Ireland in PNG in 2015. The APO says he was working with a fleet of up to nine foreign boats that had been given provincial, rather than national government, fishing permission. The APO was told Talia’s body was sighted by people in a canoe three days after he went missing. They wanted to tow it ashore, but their canoe was too full. He was gone, nothing more is known.
Larry Gavin was a PNG observer until 2016 but was lost at sea. To the APO’s anger, no details – such as the boat he was on, the circumstances of his disappearance or even where he came from in PNG, have been released by authorities there. No investigation was carried out, says APO president Elizabeth Mitchell, who adds that PNG was silent on Gavin while using his name to honour observer service.
“To me it’s truly nauseating,” Mitchell says.
Observer Usaia Masibalavu, of Fiji, had a busy Facebook page featuring photos from his observing days. On May 21, 2016, he died on board the U.S. registered seiner Western Pacific, owned by a Las Vegas, Nevada registered company. Mitchell says Masibalavu died from an injury to his knee that resulted in a lethal infection.
The company, Western Pacific Ltd, did not respond to requests for comment.
“It’s all very mysterious and I feel that it’s shameful that the U.S. government doesn’t publicly rule out negligence on the part of the vessel, or explain the circumstances and facts surrounding Usaia’s death,” Mitchell said in an email to WikiTribune.
A U.S. official had told the APO, Mitchell says, that Masibalavu was to have been placed on a ship that he had previously cited for illegal fishing for shark fins. Rather than putting him on that ship he was moved to another — the Western Pacific.
Mitchell says the official told her that the crew were broken up by his death, but, she says: “I’ve seen the crocodile tears before. It doesn’t take away negligence.”
No public action has been taken by Fiji authorities. Masibalavu‘s death did not rate a mention in local media.
This was not the case when American Keith Davis vanished from the fishing boat he was on board to observe. His loss featured extensively in Hakai magazine (part of the Tula Foundation, an independent Canadian charitable foundation) this year. His story also features in this recent report from Human Rights at Sea.
In September 2015, Davis was aboard a Panama-flagged fish carrier, Victoria 168. One of the fleet of vessels trans-shipping catches at sea, it was 850 kilometres west of Peru in waters controlled by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, the eastern Pacific’s version of WCPFC.
Davis had been checking fish coming aboard from the Chung Kuo 818, a 110 ton longliner. Food and Agriculture Organisation data showed the Chung Kuo 818 was sailing under the Vanuatu flag. It has also flown Panama and Fiji flags. Its owner was listed as a Vanuatu shell company entity owned by Taiwan’s Gilontas Ocean, one of the Pacific’s biggest fishing fleet owners.
According to Hakai, Davis’ employer, MRAG Americas, contacted the U.S. Coast Guard about the disappearance. However, under maritime law, the ultimate responsibility to investigate lay with the Panama government. An investigation was undertaken but Davis’ fate remains a mystery.
The U.S National Marine Fisheries Service is silent and Mitchell says, because the case is still open, it allowed the U.S to sit on information indefinitely. Nobody has been charged. A little over a year before Davis disappeared, he emailed friends a video that showed four men being shot to death in the water while they clung to debris.
“One way or another, the video depicts murder,” Davis wrote, according to Hakai magazine.
Cook, who was a friend of Davis, says the blanks in all the stories are a major problem.
“It seems that the government authorities are prone to try and sweep these instances under the rug at every opportunity.”
Cook says the death of Davis received attention because he was American; the fates of the others remain unknown.
Key fishing nations opposed new protections
Davis’ disappearance persuaded the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Science and Technology (NMFS) to push WCPFC for tougher observer rules. NMFS showed this PowerPoint presentation (PDF) to a December 2016 meeting in Fiji. It had a timeline on it that included the words the “loss of Masibalavu stressed inclusion of international treaty impact.” There was no further explanation of what it meant, but showed that his death at least involved issues that should have prompted further investigation.
To date nothing further has happened around Masibalavu’s loss, and nor has NMFS explained what international treaties would have made a difference. After a long fight, which one campaigning Pacific website reported ended with a victory haka or war dance, WCPFC adopted new “Observer Safety Measures” setting out specific actions to be followed if an observer got sick, injured, died or was lost overboard.
Japan, China, Taiwan and South Korea opposed the measures.
Six months later, PNG observer James Numbaru disappeared east of Nauru. He was aboard a Chinese flagged purse seiner, Feng Xiang 818, which had started life in 2003 under Taiwan’s flag, then Vanuatu, before becoming Chinese.
On June 28 this year, Numbaru fell overboard. Eleven days later, his wife Anne Emma Sombo posted a message on the APO’s Facebook page: “Is there anyone on this page from Nauru pls (sic) can you assist me for finding my missing husband,” she wrote. “(Am) asking for help coz I believe in my heart my husband is still alive and I know he drifted and some local fisherman around that area picked him up and his with them I can feel it pls help me stretch my search coz my God has saved my husband.”
Various authorities, including PNG police quoted by the daily PNG Post Courier newspaper, agreed that on-board cameras had filmed Numbaru removing his clothes, being disoriented, falling over repeatedly, appearing drunk and then falling overboard. Independent fisheries officials, with no reason to lie, are certain alcohol was the main factor.
Mitchell questions whether the alcohol line was introduced by Nauru police to cover the fact that the loss had come just after the change of rules.
Mitchell says the observer safety rules were not being followed on Feng Xiang 818.
Under the new safety rules, as soon as deck officers knew Numbaru went overboard the ship needed to stop fishing and begin a search and rescue. Feng Xiang 818 did not.
Global Fishing Watch is a nonprofit that analyzes remotely sensed data from ships at sea to identify fishing vessels and indicates where and when fishing occurs. It was founded by a partnership between international conservation group Oceana, SkyTruth and Google and receives funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation.
Global Fishing Watch data, given to WikiTribune, shows that, at the time Numbaru went overboard, the ship was fishing, and continued to do so for four hours. The tracking shows no sign of any search and rescue activity over the following 72 hours. None of Numbaru’s clothing was preserved and the Feng Xiang 818 crew were not interviewed by police.
WWF’s Bubba Cook questions why the unedited video has never been released, not even to the family. He says if alcohol was involved, who offered it, and why were their no consequences for the captain for offering alcohol on a working ship.
Mitchell says she is troubled at the “possibility of justice slipping away.”
“It will take an exceptional effort to bring it to the international fora, such as the ILO and to pressure states into meting out justice,” she says.
Back to Tunago 61 off Pitcairn
After Xie Dingrong’s blood-drained body was put in with the frozen tuna, Tunago 61 returned to fishing east of Pitcairn. A day later, engineer Zhang Dapeng reported the death to the ship’s owners in Taiwan. He was ordered to sail the 6,600 kilometres to Fiji’s capital, Suva. They arrived on September 23, 2016. At the morgue, a post mortem itemized his wounds, including a “deep incised wound” in his neck which cut through his carotid artery. Cause of death was self-evident.
As Tunago 61 arrived in Suva, it became ensnared in the blurred world between the high seas and national sovereignty. The legal criminal processes concerning a body aboard a docking ship are complex. The crime was committed outside Fiji, thus not against its law. But China required an explanation for what happened to its national, and that was the responsibility of the country in which the ship was registered. Tunago 61 was part of the world of “flags of convenience” (FOC) countries where ship owners can cheaply register their vessels and avoid many of the safety and labour rules enforced in more rigorous countries.
Vanuatu is often used as such a country. It also offers a tax haven operation and by combining both services, the true ownership of ships becomes largely impenetrable.
Six Vanuatu ships are named “Tunago”, owned by the Tunago Fishery Co Ltd, which has its registered office at a Port Vila post office box that is the registered address of the European Trust Company – a shell company creator.
The company did not respond to requests for comment over allegations of mistreatment of the crew.
There are 72 licensed fishing vessels, most of them longliners, registered in Vanuatu. All of them are Chinese or Taiwan –owned. Flagging them there circumvents WCPFC (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission) limits set in their own country.
“Migrant workers in particular are vulnerable to being….forced to work on board vessels under the threat of force or by means of debt bondage” – ILO
The International Labour Organization says forced labour and human trafficking in the fisheries sector is a severe problem with fishermen being vulnerable to human rights abuse aboard ships.
“Migrant workers in particular are vulnerable to being deceived and coerced by brokers and recruitment agencies and forced to work on board vessels under the threat of force or by means of debt bondage.”
It says victims faced illness, injury, psychological and sexual abuse, deaths of crewmates, and their vulnerability on board vessels in remote locations of the sea for months and years at a time.
“Fishers are forced to work for long hours at very low pay, and the work is intense, hazardous and difficult. Capture fisheries have one of the highest occupational fatality rates in the world.”
Fishers fall through gaps in laws and regulations set up to protect workers.
“As vessels are often at sea for long periods, the monitoring of the working conditions of fishers and the enforcement of legislation can be challenging.”
Indonesian fishermen are among the worst affected, with 7,919 of them on Taiwanese boats, 4,000 on Japanese, 1,666 on Malaysian and 2,043 on Korean fishing vessels.
‘Fishers have reportedly been murdered and their bodies disposed of at sea’ – ILO
The ILO says such migrant fishers were more likely to experience violence at work: “Some captains use violence to intimidate and foster compliance among migrant fishers and prevent them from trying to escape the vessel. In extreme cases, fishers have reportedly been murdered and their bodies disposed of at sea.”
In many cases of murder, the bodies are disposed of at sea and recorded as disappearances, due to the lack of adequate crew lists. Fishers may also be washed off the deck due to harsh weather conditions, or commit suicide because of mistreatment and abuse.
“Violence may also occur against the captain as a response to mistreatment,” the ILO says.
Suspects arrested and sent to Vanuatu
When Tunago 61 arrived in Suva, Fiji Police, notorious for their subservience to the country’s military and ineptitude in dealing with major crime, went aboard. Without lawyers or diplomats present, Indonesian crewmen Saepul Manap, Andi Riyadi, Riva Prangga Kliswanrio, Abdul Hasan Sidik, Suheri Meivan and Ade Marwadi allegedly admitted that they had killed the captain.
They were arrested and, without any extradition hearing, were then sent to Vanuatu, a country they had never seen.
The death was ruled to have occurred on the high seas and so the flag country had jurisdiction. The six were put in Port Vila’s rundown prison. (As it happens they shared it with 14 of Vanuatu’s members of parliament (a quarter of all its MPs) who had been convicted of corruption.)
On July 4, 2017, the men were told in the Bahasa Indonesia language by an unofficial translator that they were being charged with causing Xie’s death. They pleaded guilty.
Vanuatu court documents show that the six accused joined Tunago 61 in around March or April 2015 in Kaoshing, Taiwan. They were part of a human trade run by Jakarta-based agents who send around 16,000 men to Asian boats.
Those involved are promised good conditions and wages, around US$200 a month, plus food and accommodation. The agents take a heavy slice of the wage.
With a crew of 28 or 30 men, 498-ton Tunago No 61 was a tight squeeze. There was no observer.
‘Fishing boats can be like a jail, with crews locked and in hard labour’ – former crewman
One-time fishing boat crewman, observer and more recently scientist and consultant, Francisco Blaha, knows his way around longliners. He says living conditions onboard are appalling.
“Yet you get on board Pacific Islands-flagged longliners, and there is not even one Pacific Islander on board since the salary, working conditions and cramped space on board are not good. Fishing boats can be like a jail, with crews locked and in hard labour.”
Vessel owners said if more were paid to crew, fish would become more expensive. However Blaha says many of the boats are paid subsidies by their governments.
In the Xie case, the Tunago 61 headed to international waters east of New Zealand’s Kermadec Islands, between 20 and 30 degrees South. It had permission from WCPFC to tranship its catch to another ship while still at sea, rather than come into port. It met fish carriers, like the one Davis worked on.
Tunago 61’s crew set the longlines to catch albacore, yellowfin and bigeye tunas. Longliners are notorious for catching sharks (as this report on Science Direct shows) . The Tunago 61 would have likely taken shark fin too.
After five months, skipper Xie headed into the northern Pacific, perhaps hoping for an increasingly rare north Pacific bluefin.
Beatings were ‘sporadically and systematically every day’ – crew testimony
Xie laughed at them. Leaving crew unpaid or underpaid is frequently reported by media as being standard on Asian boats.
A history of abuse
Tunago 61 had a record of physical abuse and underpayment of crew. In 2006, six Chinese fishers jumped ship in Pago Pago, American Samoa. They hid in nearby mountains, then tried to get help from the ship’s agent. Police refused to see them, the International Transport Workers’ Federation said later.
They sought refuge at the Pago Pago Seafarers’ Centre, telling director Christopher Evans of the extreme physical abuses on Tunago 61. Beatings were administered “sporadically and systematically every day.”
The skipper told them he carried a gun and that they could easily be “written off” as having been swept overboard. One worker was beaten with an iron rod, sustained serious head injuries and, bleeding profusely, was locked up in the bow for three days without food or water.
Another fisher was chatting with a colleague when he was grabbed by the hair and repeatedly punched in the face. After the first assault by the chief engineer, the man was beaten with a thick wooden rod on his thigh, stomach and back.
For failing to secure bait firmly on all hooks before they were flung in the sea, a young fisher was attacked by the skipper who repeatedly punched him in the face again then kicked him in the head when he fell to the deck. The fisher’s punishment continued with another round of beatings, making him work continuously for almost 48 hours.
On Xie’s fatal voyage Tunago 61, with the six unpaid Indonesians aboard, returned to Taiwan. She sailed out again on May 7, 2016 with the captain, engineer and a crew of 26; six Vietnamese, seven Filipinos and 13 Indonesians – including the six later accused.
East of New Zealand, crewmember Riyadi would say things got worse, according to Fatiaki’s sentencing judgment in Vanuatu.
The crew were made to eat canned pork despite being Muslim, which prohibits its consumption. But it was the only food there was. Sometimes they were forced to eat fishing bait. They were made to work 22 hours a day and were not allowed to use the ship’s phone to contact family. They were still unpaid.
On September 7, 2016, Riyadi cut his hand cleaning catch. He went to the captain to ask for medication, but says the captain scoffed at him. When Riyadi asked a second time, Xie slapped him on the face. The other Indonesians joined Riyadi and went back to the captain. They told him that if he did not help them, they would kill him. Xie laughed at him and replied that he did not care if Riyadi lived or died, according to the evidence presented in the Vanuatu court.
‘The ferocity and frenzied nature of the attack is evidenced by the location, nation and number of injuries that were inflicted on the deceased’s body’ – testimony
Crewmember Kliswanrio said the crew’s anger had grown over 16 months, leading to the lethal mutiny off Pitcairn.
Fatiaki described in his finding that the armed men went to the “defenceless captain” sleeping in his cabin and attacked him: “The attack was indiscriminate and sustained even when the victim called out and unsuccessfully tried to get away from his attackers and defend himself.
“The ferocity and frenzied nature of the attack is evidenced by the location, nation and number of injuries that were inflicted on the deceased’s body.”
After they had killed Xie, the crew realized matters were serious. But they decided not to dump his body, instead putting him in the freezer. They then continued fishing.
The vessel later sailed to Fiji where the six were arrested and sent to Vanuatu. Once in custody there, they were taken before court where they admitted what they had done. On August 11, 2017, the final legal act came when they appeared before Judge Fatiaki for sentencing.
A controversial figure in the Pacific, Fatiaki had been chief justice in Fiji but was forced out by the military after allegations over his behavior in two coups (PDF report from the International Bar Association).
“Fortunately for you, Vanuatu, unlike your own country, does not have the death penalty,” he told the six men before him.
The killing of Xie was “brutal, premeditated and merciless” and no Vanuatu court “ever had to deal with a case such as this of wanton uncontrolled, violence with such a disdain for human life.”
Fatiaki accepted the six crew members had had a hard time at sea and lamented that Fiji police had not investigated their treatment. Provocation was not a defence, he said, as anger and hatred did not excuse the taking of life.
‘Human life is worth less than the fish they pursue’ – WFF fisheries expert
Prosecutor Tristan Karae wanted life imprisonment but Fatiaki began the kind of bidding process common in courts, setting a starting point of 30 years. He deducted two years for the men’s remorse and crime-free records. For pleading guilty, they got nine years carved off their sentence. Fatiaki deducted one further year for the duress each man suffered on the vessel. The six crew members were sentenced to 18 years in prison, with the possibility of parole in nine years.
Karae demanded that the men’s money be paid to the captain’s family. Fatiaki said that was impossible, as there was no money.
The case garnered just two stories in the local media, the Vanuatu Daily Post.
No appeals were lodged and the six, still unpaid, are in jail. Their court-appointed lawyer did not respond to an interview request for this story.
World Wide Fund for Nature’s Bubba Cook says that when crews are starved by their captains, killing observers was a distinct possibility. He is cynical about ever getting justice: “Because for some of the people involved, human life is worth less than the fish they pursue.”
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