In the line of duty as an observer

by George J. Maelagi | 27 October 2021 | News

A long way from home … Solomon Islands observer Jeromy Ahikau Wateoli in South Korea before observers were repatriated home when countries went into lockdown early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the four years that Jeromy Ahikau Wateoli has worked on tuna fishing vessels as an observer, he has been exposed not just to the dangers of the work but also to a wider world.

Being an observer is unique from other jobs: it takes courageous men and women to carry out the tasks involved, and not everyone can do it.

Mr Wateoli was employed in the official observer program with the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) in 2015, after completing his studies at the Solomon Islands National University, where he studied in the School of Environment.

Working on board fishing vessels, Mr Wateoli travelled the Asia–Pacific region — the first person in his family to do so. However, that life has been curtailed for now, with international work restrictions forced on countries by COVID-19.

Dangers and risks come with the job

Mr Wateoli spoke of some of the dangers or threats observers face while working abroad on foreign fishing vessels. Most of all, he says it is the loneliness that hits when they miles away from land. At first, the job came as a shock to a young man who had not travelled far from home.

“My job as an observer is very dangerous and risky, but at the same time interesting,” Mr Wateoli said.

“We are often on the high seas where land is nowhere to be seen and the weather can unexpectedly change at any time. The roughness of the high seas is nothing compared to what we’ve experienced travelling inter-island. Loneliness often struck when we spent months at sea without any land in sight.

“Communication is also very challenging at first, as most of the employees of the vessel were of different background and ethnicity, and they speak different languages.”

As an observer, it was very important to keep his focus on monitoring and keeping records of data collected on every fishing day, he said.

One of his duties was to make sure the vessel did not operate outside marine or fisheries regulations. He had to make sure the vessel applied sustainable harvesting of resources, especially of the tuna stocks.

Mr Wateoli said part of an observer’s job was quite similar to a police officer’s, as their role was to make sure the vessel operated as regulated.

part of side of purse seine fishing vessel, with net of fish being hauled in

Jeromy Wateoli watches a catch of tuna being brought on board the purse-seine vessel on which he’s working as an official observer

It can be challenging working on the high seas

“One of the challenges we face at sea is the unpredictable weather pattern. A storm can hit at any time,” Mr Wateoli said.

“When there are high swells, it is very risky, as a person can easily be tossed out of the vessel. During these storms, the life expectancy for crew members is seen as 50% chance of survival.

“Another challenge is reporting on incidents that take place on board. It can be stressing, as it will draw a line between the observer and other vessel employees. It is the responsibility of an observer to report a vessel that is operating outside of its fishing regulations, but making that decision is not easy as the consequences of the decision could cost the company which owns the vessel.”

He said one reason the job was risky was because the laws that governed the ocean were very complex and could be breached at any time if there was a weak observer on board the vessel or they were not properly assessing a catch.

A fearful side of being an observer was hearing foreigners on the vessel telling stories of the past, when crew or observers had gone missing. Carrying these stories in mind while working made the job more challenging.

“It is also very challenging being friends with other vessel employees and at the same time keeping your professionalism,” Mr Wateoli said.

“At first, I found it quite difficult, but slowly I learned while on my second trip to fully understand my working environment and the nature of the job.”

He said that working on a foreign vessel could become dangerous for an independent observer when illegal bycatches of endangered species were involved, or when there was overharvesting of tuna and unsustainable catches of other marine resources.

An observer might fear for their life when reporting undersized stocks or endangered species, as hostility could arise at any time. Observers even faced intimidation or were harassed by vessel employees.

“It takes tough men or women to get the job done. You must be ready to report anything that is unnecessarily happening on board,” he said.

The offshore observer said the data he collected would be sent to Noumea and other parts of the region to contribute to future resources management tools.

“The data we collect will help us [as a region] to properly manage our resources,” he said. That was why it was important that data collection be accurate.

Another role of observers was to make sure that the fishing vessel had a valid fishing licence, and that the fishing company had met all the requirements and regulations of the FFA, the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), the Pacific Community (SPC) or a bilateral trip operating within any country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Although observers weren’t law enforcers, part of their job was to check whether fishing vessel crew members had valid passports on board, a requirement to work in other countries, including their EEZ. This information was recorded in the observer’s data.

Man sits on boat structure, silhouetted against setting sun

Time for a moment of quietness at the end of a day of work at sea

COVID-19 forced a temporary change of direction

Mr Wateoli was in Korea when the coronavirus started. He had to be repatriated home to Solomon Islands.

Like other observers from the countries of the Western and Central Pacific, he was forced to leave his job when countries locked down early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions continue: last week, the Solomon Islands government issued a memo putting the observer program on hold until further notice.

The pandemic has left Mr Wateoli without a job as an observer. But this has not stopped this young man from earning an income, as he is venturing into small business to make ends meet. This has helped him to earn an average income to support his family and his siblings.

He said some of the offshore observers were at Noro, working with the National Fisheries Development vessel operating within the country’s borders assisting inshore fishing vessels.

He worries that if the borders are closed for too long, some of the Asian–Pacific countries will be vulnerable to illegal fishing activities because of the lack of officials and the complexity of marine policies and regulations.

Mr Wateoli hopes that the pandemic will be over soon as looking for an adequate job was very difficult.

“I hope the pandemic will be over soon and we can get our jobs back,” he said.

Advantages, too, in the life of an observer

Mr Wateoli said that being an observer was rewarding despite the dangers and challenges.

“It is quite rewarding after spending long periods of time at sea, having missed my family and friends, and to come back and see them, bringing home money to meet of our family needs and wants,” he said.

The observer program had given him an opportunity to visit many countries around the Asia–Pacific region: Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, Federated States of Micronesia (Pohnpei), Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati, PNG and Fiji.

Mr Wateoli said he was one of the fortunate Solomon Islanders to be part of the observer program, contributing to the monitoring of tuna and reporting the harvest of tuna stock.

Through his observation work, Mr Wateoli said, he had gained a larger view of the world, and had come to understand something of the ways Solomon islanders harvest tuna on a small scale up to a national scale.

Towlines and pole-and-line fishing methods were the top choice as they were sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Mr Wateoli urged locals and Solomon Islands’ large-scale fishing industries to use such sustainable fishing methods to reduce exploitation of our marine resources.

“If we use more of those undiscriminating fishing methods that include nets and trawling, blast-fishing, etc., there will be nothing left in the ocean for our future generations,” he said.

“Not only will it affect the fish stocks, but also other marine life such as corals and other aquatic animals and plants. The marine ecosystem will be exploited.”

Jeromy Wateoli, young man of Solomon Islands, crouches on a flat metal surface, giving thumbs up. Behind him is the ocean and the moon.

Solomon Islander observer Jeromy Wateoli gives the thumbs up for the importance of his work