The True Cost of Canned Tuna Includes Marine Observer Abuse and Deaths | Civil Eats

The True Cost of Tuna: Marine Observers Dying at Sea

The harassment, abuse, and sometimes death of the marine observers who uphold sustainable seafood standards are the industry’s worst-kept secrets. Critics say the people and companies that earn the most money on tuna aren’t doing enough to secure their well-being.

A watercolor-style illustration of a marine observer looking through binoculars at a tuna fishing vessel. (Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer)

Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

Simi Cagilaba could hear the fighting outside his cabin door. In the hallway of the 209-foot tuna seiner, drunken crewmen were roiling the ship yet again. It was late, and the vessel was bobbing on the currents of the South Pacific, the fighting typical of nights when the cook let the crew drink the rice wine. Now, the unwelcome clamor moved toward his door like another bad omen in a trip that was steadily devolving.

An official observer of marine fisheries, Cagilaba was miles offshore of the Marshall Islands, dispatched aboard the seiner then known as the Sea Quest. It was 2015. He had a background in marine affairs and was working for the Fijian government in its national Ministry of Fisheries, tasked with upholding a patchwork of regulations meant to safeguard tuna.

Among the harassment observers have faced: Being locked in their rooms, threatened at knifepoint, chased around docks, forced to accept bribes, raped, starved, pressured to sign off on sustainability criteria. Conditions in the South Pacific are among the worst.

He was used to being a lone technician amid raucous crews, overseeing fishing on vessels from all over the world. He had been an observer for 18 years, deployed for weeks at a time in gigs that net some of the best wages around. But this deployment was an outlier. Earlier in the trip, Cagilaba had watched as the captain of the Sea Quest twice falsified catch reports.

Then he’d seen two crewmen dumping 10 hefty bales of plastic and straps into the sea. The captain had been menacing Cagilaba ever since, pestering him to censor his report in a not-nice way that went from uncomfortable to unnerving. Once back on land, it was a saga that would cost Cagilaba his job. But the trick at the time was to stay alive until he got there.

“Others will not be coming home at all,” Cagilaba said. Years later, he recalled the experience in testimony to Congress during a probe of observer harassment at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency his employer frequently partnered with.

His story echoes others like it. Harassment of marine observers aboard fishing vessels is one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets. In a survey of observers in the United States alone, about half said that they had been harassed on the job. Anecdotally, Liz Mitchell, president of the Association for Professional Observers (APO) and herself a former observer, says the APO routinely logs stories of such incidents. The APO’s website describes them in detail: observers locked in their rooms, threatened at knifepoint, chased around docks, forced to accept bribes, raped, starved, pressured to sign off on sustainability criteria. Conditions in the South Pacific are among the worst.

This is the true price of a can of tuna, that lucrative shelf-stable fare that whips from the Pacific Ocean onto grocery shelves like millions of widgets flung from a slingshot. Amid rising numbers of marine observers allegedly murdered and disappeared at sea, Cagilaba’s story underscores how little words like “sustainably caught” and “certified” may mean when it comes to protecting the humans in the supply chain. And how much grocery and retail brands profit anyway.

Industry experts say that purveyors of canned tuna—major grocers like Walmart, Costco, Aldi, and Albertsons and the brands that stock their shelves—have the power to pressure tuna suppliers to ensure the safety of marine observers, not to mention fishing crews. Mostly, they don’t. In years past, that’s been because they’ve had little way of knowing when the boats they buy from are responsible for throwing observers overboard, bringing them lifeless into port after “accidents,” or harboring polluters, carrying slaves, or indulging in other kinds of human rights abuses.

Technology is now slowly making these questions answerable, however. So, too, are strategies to strengthen the laws and relationships that make such behavior unacceptable, or at least unprofitable.

“Global seafood supply chains are notoriously opaque. No one knows what’s going on there. And the companies are benefitting from that.”

As connecting problem boats to products becomes possible, advocates for at-sea workers question whether it is now just inconvenience, rather than geography or logistics, that still causes retail brands and grocers to stand aside while observers like Cagilaba are risking—and increasingly losing—their lives at sea. Whatever the reason, critics say those who earn the most money on tuna aren’t doing enough to secure the well-being of those who earn the least.

“As you go back in the supply chain, the difference in profits between what retailers make and what you see at the fishing vessel level is so vast . . . It’s almost four times more,” said Mallika Talwar, a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace.

Tuna brands like Bumble Bee, StarKist, and Chicken of the Sea and the grocers that sell their products anchor one end of the supply chain. Workers aboard fishing vessels and the observers entrusted to watch them are on the other. In between, “Global seafood supply chains are notoriously opaque,” said Talwar. “No one knows what’s going on there. And the companies are benefitting from that.”

Observing How Your Canned Tuna Gets Caught

To understand how this all works, and how it could work better, imagine the vast swath of water between the west coast of the U.S. and the eastern flank of Asia being cradled by a string of islands—Pacific Island nations—like a watermelon teetering on the bowl of a long-handled spoon. More than 1.5 million square miles of ocean make up the watermelon and are home to migrating tunas worth billions in the global market. The fish don’t care about national borders. But people do, especially in places where there is little land and few natural resources to claim besides the fish in the water.

So it is that island nations and states—from Papua New Guinea to Hawaii and south to New Zealand—have staked their claims to swaths of ocean in the tunas’ paths. On maps, each nation sits within its own ring. And everyone generally agrees that the rings denote each nation’s territorial seas. A smattering of treaties and agreements delineate who can fish where within the rings. And the unclaimed sea beyond is governed by regional authorities that function about as efficiently as the U.S. Congress.

Marine observers like Cagilaba are deployed in concert with the rules that nations and regional authorities make. Employed by a handful of companies and several governments, their job is to collect important data about the fish and to ensure that the people on the boats don’t pillage or pollute. Thus, marine observers are the last men and women standing between any island nation and the destructive potential of its seafaring visitors. Sometimes that’s a dangerous place to be standing.

An illustration showing two men on a fishing vessel, one is a marine observer checking the fishing standards and safety of the catch, and the other is a fisherman holding up a large tuna that was just caught. (Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer)

Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

This is where more than half of the world’s tuna supply comes from. It includes fresh-caught fish as well as canned, though the cans fuel the wealthiest actors. Canned tuna accounts for two-thirds of the $42 billion industry worldwide. The companies behind the Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist brands control the largest share of those cans. It is this multi-billion-dollar haul that entices vessels from all over the world to hunt what is arguably the largest and most lucrative wild protein supply left on Earth. But while marine observers protect the fish, there are scant protections for the observers themselves. Sometimes, the job is a little like being sent behind enemy lines to make sure that the other army plays fair.

For Cagilaba, the trip aboard the Sea Quest was one of those times. After he refused the captain’s entreaties to fudge his reports to authorities, as he later told Congress, he heard the captain on the phone, complaining loudly and falsely about him in what the captain had warned would be a call to a friend at NOAA. The captain was highly motivated to influence NOAA’s official narrative of the trip.

The plastics dumping alone was a violation of a MARPOL convention, an international treaty that spelled big trouble for any vessel. It was especially big trouble for this vessel, which had just been fined for hanging lights off the boat and into the water to cause the fish to aggregate there, a violation of another treaty between the U.S. and island nations. The dumping and the fictitious catch reports could provoke legal action, fines, and possibly criminal charges.

Inside the wheelhouse, a rough cube with windows towering high above the Sea Quest’s deck, Cagilaba could hear the captain describing him in harsh and fictitious terms. The next day, he received an email from his boss via the captain, who’d been contacted by NOAA. It read:

“Simi . . . Just to remind you that you are an observer . . . You are never to direct or make threats to anybody on board the vessel.”

Rules to Protect Marine Observers

Protections for marine observers would begin to take shape later that year. The effort followed the disappearance of a prominent American observer who went missing during the transshipment of tuna from one boat to another somewhere west of Peru soon after Cagilaba’s Sea Quest tour. The investigation of his disappearance soon gave new urgency to other reports of disappearances and deaths of marine observers. Within two and a half years, one of the primary regulatory authorities presiding over the watermelon—the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission, or WCPFC—would pass a measure committing its member nations to observer safety to discourage these kinds of things from happening again.

This would be the first mandate to protect marine observers adopted by the world’s international authorities. It followed rules intended to equip observers with two-way satellite radios to give them a direct line of communication back to land. This, so they could subvert ship systems if ever they were under threat, bypassing the captain and crew. Under the measure, participating nations would also be expected to ensure that observers made it off the boat alive.

However, none of that was rule yet. Stuck aboard the Sea Quest, Cagilaba had safety gear to help him survive the water should the crew decide to throw him in. But he lacked a radio.

So, he did what he could. He sent an email through the ship’s system detailing the situation to one of his supervisors back in Fiji. It was a dangerous move—the captain could see all that he wrote. But Cagilaba wanted the opportunity to explain himself to his employer. And he wanted to get off of the Sea Quest. Still, he knew the score. The captain’s NOAA contact was a long-serving officer in the National Marine Fisheries Service, a fixture in the small enclave of South Pacific fishery regulators since at least the ‘90s. Cagilaba’s own bosses already favored the man.

That the Sea Quest was American-flagged was part of the rub. In reality, the ship was Taiwanese. So were all the officers on board, save for the captain, an American whose nationality enabled the flag. Taiwanese vessels are notoriously bad actors in these parts. An investigation of the nation’s more than 1,390 flagged and foreign operated vessels by the Environmental Justice Foundation between 2016 and 2020 would later surface charges of illegal activity on 10 percent of those boats, ranging from abusing and enslaving crews to illegal fishing and other international atrocities, like killing whales and using dolphins as bait. These were crimes that the American government was, by proxy in this scenario, now associating with.

To further complicate things, the two men whose fighting later unspooled outside Cagilaba’s cabin door were not at all his fans, thanks to his having turned them both in for violations on other trips. And because of the jurisdictional challenges of prosecuting any crime at sea—Cagilaba was a Fijian aboard an American-flagged vessel crewed by Taiwanese officers and whose fishing port was in the Marshall Islands—there was no guarantee of consequences if the Sea Quest returned to port without him.

An illustration of the overheard fight on board the Sea Quest, with a fisherman yelling at a marine observer who had reported some on the crew for sustainable fishing infractions. Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

So, Cagilaba told Congress later, he stayed up most of that night and every other night after, sleeping during lulls in the fishing during the day while the crew was kept sober and busy. Days passed.

Challenges with the U.S. Approach to Illegal Seafood

In Europe, it’s illegal to sell a product that’s tied to illegal fishing. In the U.S., not so much.

The brands that rule the cans—StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee—have all been purchased by Asian companies since 2000, and their sustainability commitments have shifted.

“In Europe, the retailers over the last 10 years have evolved in a different way,” said Daniel Suddaby, vice president at the international nonprofit Ocean Outcomes, which promotes healthy ocean ecosystems, fishing communities, and plentiful and profitable seafood. “Most will have a team of three to four quite qualified and experienced marine scientist advocates who really understand the issues. And they will engage in it in more of a deep, meaningful, and careful way. It’s not to say there isn’t a ton of risk in the supply chain in Europe.”

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The purchasing risks he describes come with responsibilities. Businesses that import seafood are legally required to undertake due diligence to ensure they’re not buying illegal catch. They also have to be able to demonstrate the steps they take to ensure the legal purchase.

Those steps support port inspectors, whose job is to check catch certificates supplied by foreign exporters. Regular audits assess whether the countries that import seafood to the European Union—there’s an approved list—are honoring agreements to keep illegal catch out of their exports. Problem nations are graded with yellow and red cards that help businesses understand where the greatest risks lie when they’re buying seafood from abroad. When they improve, those colors switch to green.

In the U.S., there’s no such framework. Instead, port inspectors are the only bulwark against all illegal catch. The U.S. does have a Seafood Import Monitoring Program, but the regulators that oversee it don’t often issue information that helps businesses understand purchasing risk. Brands that import seafood face no legal liability if they buy illegal catch. Neither do retailers. In short, there is little incentive to do anything more than shrug about widely known abuses of fishing and humanitarian rules.

Some American importers are interested in trying to resist illegal fare anyway, especially more boutique retailers that serve a more socially conscious shopper. But the marketplace doesn’t make it easy. Huw Thomas, a seafood industry consultant for Global Fishing Watch, says that to really assess the sustainability and human rights record of a product, “there’s 200 data sets that a business would need to know. It’s beyond their capabilities to get their arms around it.” Retailers also stock tens of thousands of products, and struggle to prioritize what to check.

But retailers do have power. Lots of it, though the weight of the lucrative end of the supply chain has not been brought to bear on better regulations, frameworks, and accountability for tuna suppliers. It’s a fact that allows bad actors to fish as profitably as the vast majority of those who follow the rules, if not more so.

What’s more, the brands that rule the cans—StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee—are all following the lead of the U.S.’s largest grocers. Those brands have all been purchased by Asian companies since 2000. Bumble Bee was bought by Fong Chun Formosa Fishery Company, Ltd. (FCF) of Kaoshiung, Taiwan, in 2021; StarKist by Dongwon Group of Seoul and Busan, South Korea, in 2008; and Chicken of the Sea was fully acquired by Thai Union Group of Samut Sakhon, Thailand, in 2000. As each company has reorganized its leadership, sustainability commitments have shifted.

Chicken of the Sea has continued some efforts. The company has a vessel code of conduct program, and it said in a statement that it is engaged in third-party audits of its supply chain. Its leadership has joined the boards of other organizations aimed at reducing illegal fishing and human rights abuses. It’s also made commitments to source all of its tuna from monitored vessels, either human or otherwise, and to reduce fishery bycatch, though the deadlines for meeting those goals are still ahead.

An illustration of a tin of canned tuna, with the lid slightly pulled open and a picture of a large tuna on the side. (Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer)

Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

At Bumble Bee, however, trends toward cleaning up the supply chain have reversed course, with its former sustainability targets ratcheted downward since its FCF buyout. Bumble Bee did not respond to requests for comment about these issues. StarKist also did not respond to a request for comment about its efforts to combat illegal seafood and human rights abuses. “These companies are super sensitive to what the retailers are asking,” said Suddaby. And yet, he adds: “Some of the big retailers in the U.S. have limited understandings of the sustainability issues.”

This is why many large U.S. retailers default to third-party certifiers like the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) instead of staffing or partnering with qualified, experienced marine science advocates. “What would really be supportive for sustainability, as well as the MSC push, is having the big retailers say to FCF, ‘You need to greatly increase observer coverage,’” said Suddaby.

Instead, MSC certifies seafood to environmental standards. It is seen as better than nothing by advocates. But it lacks clear human rights standards, even though its certifications depend on the work of marine observers, as well as the work of the crews that catch the fish. The approach hasn’t worked to defend against human rights abuses. In the last seven years, Human Rights at Sea (HRAS) found, four observers have gone missing from or died suspiciously aboard four different vessels that were authorized to fish MSC-certified tuna by regional authorities. A fifth observer had also disappeared from a vessel in 2010. His remains were later recovered—his legs and body bound by chains.

In a statement, MSC’s head of social policy, Oluyemisi Oloruntuyi, stressed that the organization certifies only fisheries, not the boats that catch MSC fish, which are determined by regional fisheries authorities. Two of the boats on which observers died never did fish MSC catch, despite having permission to, according to the statement. And MSC questions the motivations behind the  report, which HRAS discloses was funded by World Wise Foods. World Wise Foods shares a chairman with the International Pole and Line Foundation, an organization that promotes competing sectors and is a historic critic of the fishery, and sources tuna from a commercial competitor.

Such hair-splitting statements effectively allow MSC to avoid accountability for the challenges faced by observers, but they are hallmarks of the global tuna industry. And while the Sea Quest was fishing conventional—not MSC—tuna at the time, this is the marketplace that Cagilaba was working in while under threat and under-slept aboard the Sea Quest in 2015.

Certain of the dangers, he hastened to get off at the next port. His supervisors had already told him to stay on board via email. But once the Sea Quest docked in the Marshall Islands, Cagilaba quickly made contact with the observer coordinator for the Ministry of Fisheries. He tried again to relay his unease about the fudged catch reports, the threats from the captain, and the captain’s call to the American official who’d relayed the fictitious narrative of the trip to his bosses. The coordinator downplayed Cagilaba’s account, according to Cagilaba’s statements to Congress. Then he told him to get back on the boat.

Later, Cagilaba learned that the coordinator was friends with the Sea Quest’s agent, another cog in a shaky wheel, rattled by corruption. Once told to get back aboard, he knew his report would be buried. And that if he didn’t make it known soon, somehow, he was unlikely to get off the Sea Quest alive.

‘Retailer Apathy’ for Addressing Marine Observer Safety

This is the part of the industry that is lesser known: How shaky this wheel is. Observer harassment aboard fishing vessels is well understood. But that observers face harassment from compromised program and agency staff is less common knowledge.

According to the survey of American observers by NOAA Fisheries, among the 46 percent who said they had been harassed at sea, most were either dissatisfied or nonplussed by the experience of reporting it. Nearly 60 percent of those who made reports said there was no response. And some feared the repercussions of saying anything: fewer deployments, assignments back to problem vessels. “Some respondents mentioned that most of time they handled situations on their own, since they felt that some observer program staff would not take their reports seriously,” the survey found.

The extent to which officials in observer programs and oversight agencies were being co-opted into the dark underworld of tuna—and how often tuna brands play along—would become better understood in 2020. That’s the year that Eritara Aati Kaierua, a fishery observer from Kiribati, was brought ashore lifeless by a Taiwanese purse seiner, the Win Far 636, after a tuna fishing trip off the coast of Nauru.

Observer harassment aboard fishing vessels is well understood, but observers also face harassment from compromised program and agency staff.

Kaierua should have been protected under the new WCPFC mandate for observer safety. But while working as part of a special project to certify tuna for MSC, he was found dead in one of the boat’s cabins. An autopsy later conducted in Fiji found he had died from a blow to the head. Local authorities next opened a murder investigation, but it has never concluded.

“We initially heard that it was homicide. Then seven months later, we heard of a second opinion that changed the cause of death to natural causes due to hypertension,” Nicky Kaierua, his sister, said in an email. She added that she has seen the initial autopsy report on her brother and is confident that hypertension didn’t cause his death. That word—hypertension—has now been used to explain two other observer deaths, and families of observers missing and murdered in the Pacific have come together in grief to note their experiences with its use.

Some charge that authorities are unmotivated to resolve such cases in countries that are economically dependent on fishing, or reluctant to take a tough stance on all crimes at sea. Tuna accounts for a substantial share of jobs in the Pacific Islands and an often-larger share of public spending. In Kiribati, for example, tuna revenues fuel 63 percent of the national budget. The geopolitics and jurisdictional mayhem involved with prosecuting crimes aboard foreign fishing vessels, or involving citizens from other countries or both, also don’t make it easy.

Meanwhile, Nicky Kaierua said, “My brother’s ‘unsolved’ death has had devastating impacts on our family.” Like many observers, Kaierua was his family’s breadwinner, supporting a wife and four children who have had little financial support since he died. “Fisheries observers are often forewarned that the job is risky. They are also told that the position comes with good pay because of the risk that comes with it. My brother earned 60 Australian dollars a day. Should we be lenient on their safety because they get a little bit extra?”

According to the investigation by Human Rights at Sea, after the Win Far 636 brought Kaierua’s body back to port, it took regional authorities another 38 days to suspend the boat’s certificate to fish in the MSC program. MSC later emphasized that its certification was an environmental standard, not a human rights one, in a statement, which noted that it took steps to assure that no catch from the vessel entered the supply chain as MSC-certified.

Some charge that authorities are unmotivated to resolve such cases in countries that are economically dependent on fishing; in Kiribati, for example, tuna revenues fuel 63 percent of the national budget.

APO has since recommended that programs like MSC have criteria that protect observers and processes that gauge whether those programs work. APO has also pressed the international community to outlaw observer harassment globally and document observer deaths for the public.

In response to such critiques, the MSC introduced new requirements in October 2022 that “entities involved in unacceptable conduct inclusive of mistreatment of crew and fisheries observers must be removed from MSC certificates.” It also gave $137,000 toward the development of communications technology and a review of observer programs in April 2021. But those changes won’t impact the Win Far 636. In July 2022, after no criminal charges were filed in Kaierua’s death, the boat was again certified to fish MSC tuna through 2025.

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Observer advocates admit that blacklisting problem boats and companies can sometimes backfire anyway, making space for other bad actors. Most believe the best response to human rights abuses would be for grocers to use their market heft to directly push their suppliers toward better practices, moving the whole market. Among retailers that use MSC as a proxy for examining supply chains, however, that conversation isn’t happening, at least not publicly.

Costco declined to comment for this article. Neither Albertsons, Walmart, nor Aldi responded to requests for interviews or comments. And it’s this distinctive indifference, an overall lack of action, that critics describe as most problematic, an institutional buck-passing that is a defining characteristic of the tuna marketplace.

“You can call it retailer apathy,” said Talwar of Greenpeace. In its own survey of tuna retailers, Greenpeace found that only five of 16 of the largest retailers that sell tuna took specific steps to advocate for observer protections. Among those, most had only gone as far as to formally encourage observer programs to work together toward an International Observer Bill of Rights. In evaluating tuna retailers overall, Talwar said, “They’re far behind anything that we would expect from companies that are in this business.”

Most believe the best response to human rights abuses would be for grocers to use their market heft to directly push their suppliers toward better practices, moving the whole market.

Most large retailers just return to the same big cans. They buy from StarKist, Chicken of the Sea, and Bumble Bee, primarily, and acquiesce to whatever supply-chain due-diligence the brands provide. In its investigation of Kaierua’s death, Human Rights at Sea found that it was most likely Bumble Bee’s parent company, FCF, that bought the tuna from the ill-fated voyage. It wasn’t the first time that suspected illegal fishing was found in the Bumble Bee supply chain. In March 2023, Bumble Bee agreed to remove the terms “fair and safe supply chain” and “fair and responsible working conditions” from its website, social media, and advertising for a decade after being sued by a labor rights group for allegedly violating consumer protection laws by claiming them.

But not much, otherwise, has changed. The Win Far 636, while it continues fishing, is just as connected to the tuna marketplace as ever, one of 27 vessels owned by a consortium of companies that delivers its MSC catch to FCF for canning for Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, among other brands. Then there’s that other vessel, the Sea Quest. At the time of Cagilaba’s voyage, it was owned by a company run by a prominent group of tuna executives, including those with ties to Chicken of the Sea, Mitsui, and headed by FCF president, Max Chou. A spokesman for the company declined to comment, citing corporate policy.

Technology, Policy, and Consumer Pressure for Change

Cagilaba never got back aboard the Sea Quest. After his supervisor told him to, he refused and walked straight to the refuge of the U.S. Embassy in Majuro, Marshall Islands, where officials reacted swiftly. They sent a message to NOAA recommending that Cagilaba not be sent back to the vessel. And, he told Congress, they secured his report to keep it from being buried once he arrived back in Fiji and gave it to his employer.

That report later led to an investigation that, like that of Kaierua’s death, went nowhere. Then the Sea Quest also disappeared. Records show it was renamed Joe Turner, sold to a new owner in the Philippines, and now fishes tuna for a seafood company that charters it from Papua New Guinea. Nambawan Seafoods PNG Limited is one of FCF’s many partners in the region.

It is common for formal inquiries like Cagilaba’s to be abandoned, languishing in a state of perpetual unresolve, and for problem boats to vanish into the opacity of the tuna supply chain, while issues aboard go unresolved. Yet a combination of technology, policy, and consumer pressure on suppliers could actually keep the problem from happening in the first place.

A watercolor-style illustration of a marine observer looking through binoculars at a tuna fishing vessel. (Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer)

Illustration credit: Tina Zellmer

Most people working for brands and retailers know this. But none were willing to go on record to talk about an effort that’s now underway to connect the fish they sell with whatever happens on the boats when it’s caught.

That work—called the SCRP, or Supply Chain Risk Project—is being led by a trifecta of institutions adept at using technology and data to track illegal fishing. They include Global Fishing Watch, which creates and shares knowledge about human activity at sea; the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, which leads research and innovation involving oceans; and FishWise, which works with companies to address environmental and humanitarian goals in seafood supply chains. Hosted by the World Economic Forum, the three are steeped in a massive data project that can help retailers check a supplier’s word. And maybe twist their arm.

The data comes from global tracking devices that use transceivers on ships, called AIS or Automatic Identification System, that are required aboard vessels and can be tracked by satellite and analyzed by the likes of Global Fishing Watch. To watch a vessel through AIS is to understand where it is in the ocean, when it ports and anchors, and when it’s making the kinds of maneuvers associated with fishing. It’s possible to use that data to see, say, when a boat is fishing in a marine protected area. Or when a vessel’s beacon shuts off right outside of one.

Such systems don’t eliminate the need for observers, even when paired with cameras aboard boats. Fisheries scientists maintain that having a human presence at least 20 percent of the time is still critical to guaranteeing that the science underpinning stock assessments that guide fishing are accurate. Observers also collect a lot of other information—details about the age of the fish caught, and ratios of males to females, for example—that help set the rules about what fish can be caught where.

That said, digital oversight that can command better practices is increasingly possible, if not imminent. Some private sector companies that use blockchain to collect data at various points along the supply chain, such as Wholechain, say they are already close to pinpointing vessels tied to observer deaths and other human rights abuses. Whether that oversight someday comes with consumer-facing tools that assure customers a safe supply chain is up to the companies. But it’s now conceivable. And that’s no small thing.

Details about which corporations’ data is powering the SCRP’s test drive are top secret and, again, none of the major tuna brands or grocers—Aldi, Walmart, Costco, Albertsons, Bumble Bee, StarKist, and Chicken of the Sea—would comment on the effort to daylight the seafood supply chain, or say whether they’re involved. Right now, it is being funded by philanthropists.

The fact that some retailers are indeed in the mix, even behind the scenes, is likely good news for Cagilaba’s ilk, who had no such potential ally back in 2015. It’s unclear who bought the catch from his harrowing trip, to what market it flew, or where in the world it landed. But it’s clear that the answers to those questions would allow people on one end of the supply chain to bolster the safety for those on the other end.

While digital oversight can command better practices at sea, fisheries scientists maintain that having a human presence at least 20 percent of the time is still critical to guaranteeing the accuracy of the stock assessments that guide fishing.

For Cagilaba, back in Fiji, safety was a relative term. He was fired within months, while the NOAA investigation of his rough tour aboard the Sea Quest was still underway. It took six months for NOAA’s law enforcement to interview him. And as far as he could tell later, the only result was an early retirement.

“It made me realize that some government officials from the Pacific island countries are overly familiar with the fishing company personnel and their boat agents and have been compromised, making our jobs as fisheries observers impossible and dangerous,” he wrote in testimony to Congress later.

Cagilaba eventually moved to America, became a criminal investigator first, and then a lawyer. No more boisterous drunks in the night, captains that could order him thrown into the sea, or employers who wouldn’t prevent it.

It’s too late for 13 of his colleagues who have died since 2014. It may not be too late for the rest.

Ofani Eremae contributed reporting.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Lee van der Voo is a contributing editor for Civil Eats based in Oregon. Her investigations of food, energy and climate issues have appeared in ProPublica, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, and Seattle Weekly, among others. She is the former managing director of InvestigateWest and the author of The Fish Market, a book in which she chronicles the commoditization of fish. She does get seasick. She is not easily deterred. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Jeremy Brown
    This article describes the dark side, but it should be acknowledged that much has been done to address the issues raised.
    It also needs stressing that the majority of participants are trying meet and exceed standards such as MSC. For example:
    Troll caught albacore from smaller US and Canadian boats is widely available, at historically low prices.
    Consumers seeking to support positive change might make the effort to support these fishermen.

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