Purse-seine chopper pilot absconds with helicopter

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A Spanish contract pilot who flew a fish-spotting helicopter for a Taiwan-flagged purse seiner is now facing criminal charges in the Marshall Islands. Pictured is one of the Win Far tuna fleet purse seiners with a helicopter on the bow. Photo: Karen Earnshaw.

Republished from FFA Trade and Industry News, volume 13, issue 4, July–August 2020

In late June 2020, a helicopter pilot working onboard the Taiwanese purse seiner Win Far 626 that was fishing in the Kiribati EEZ absconded with his helicopter and flew northward, landing on Nallu Island, Mili Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, after what was said to have been a two-and-a-half-hour flight. Mili is about 112 km south of the capital, Majuro, and roughly the same distance from the EEZ boundary with Kiribati. 

According to an affidavit filed by the Marshall Islands’ Director of Immigration, “The pilot took off without permission and unannounced from the vessel.” The pilot, 39 year-old Brazilian and Spanish dual citizen Jose Eduardo Marinho Goncalves, later told authorities that he was tired of eating fish and rice almost every day and missed his family after a long period at sea and wanted to return home.

After being advised by Mili officials of the helicopter’s landing, the Marshall Islands Government dispatched its patrol boat, Lomor, and several government officials to Mili where Goncalves was arrested and brought to Majuro. He was charged with entry at an unofficial port of entry, entry without a valid visa, and failure to surrender any document.

The illegal entry offenses were particularly concerning to Marshall Islands officials, since the country has been in a border lockdown since late March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has banned all entry of people into the country and so far, has not recorded any COVID-19 cases.  

Upon arrival in Majuro, Goncalves was handed over to the Department of Health, was tested for COVID-19 and immediately went into quarantine at a facility that has been set up by the Department of Health during the pandemic. The Lomor crew and others onboard were also tested, with all tests including that of Goncalves returned as negative.  After completion of quarantine the pilot had his first appearance in front of the Marshall Islands High Court and was released on his own recognizance. Goncalves was represented by the Chief Public Defender who entered into negotiations with the Marshall Islands’ Attorney General prior to a plea hearing on 24 July.

At the hearing, the resident of Madrid, Spain apologized for his illegal entry and expressed his appreciation for the treatment he received while in the Marshall Islands. Also present at the hearing was Spain’s Honorary Consul in the Marshall Islands, Deborah Kramer. As part of a plea bargain between the Chief Public Defender and the Attorney General, Goncalves pleaded guilty to entry at an unofficial port of entry, which is a misdemeanor. The other two charges, entry without a visa and failure to surrender any document, were dismissed by the Attorney General. Chief Justice Carl Ingram gave the pilot a suspended sentence and said that if the court has not revoked probation and imposed a jail sentence at the end of six months, he would vacate the conviction from Goncalves’ record.

In what was a happy ending for Goncalves, he departed Majuro on 24 July on the United Airlines special monthly repatriation flight that had been recently introduced for outgoing passengers only. It is not known if either the company that owns the Win Far 626 or the owner of the helicopter, Guam-based Hansen Helicopters, are planning any further legal action against the pilot.  What is known is that at the end of July the helicopter was still stuck on Mili. Hansen, which also has a base in Majuro where they service helicopters used by the purse seine fleet in the Western Pacific, asked Goncalves to assist in retrieving the helicopter by flying it from Mili to Majuro before his departure, but he declined to do so. Whilst there are no indications in this particular case of human rights or labour abuse, this demonstrates the highly challenging nature of life at sea on distant water fishing vessels, even for those in higher-level positions.

Give a thought for the workers who put tuna on your plate

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Meet Salim. He works on a purse-seiner flagged to a distant-water fishing nation operating in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean. 

You may be at home enjoying a leisurely weekend meal of tuna from a fish he helped catch, freeze and tranship during his current work stint. 

Salim is still working on that boat. His contract is for three years, and he has almost two years more to go before he can go home and sit down to dinner with his family.

There are no weekends or holidays on a fishing boat. The day is marked by mealtimes and the weeks and months by fishing, coming to port to tranship or unload, and going back fishing. 

When at sea, the vessels are either looking for fish or catching it. The catching requires a highly choregraphed and dangerous set of manoeuvres that, while completed in a rigorous order, depend a lot on the weather and sea conditions for their execution. And while the vessel is looking for fish, the crew are doing maintenance: moving fish from wells to dry lockers, repairing nets, cleaning, and a hundred more chores.

When in port, you have to unload (either tranship or land), and that means handling one by one all the tuna in a catch that may weigh in at anything from 700 tons to 1,700 tons. 

There are different jobs on board during the unloading, and crew get rotated among a few of them. Salim is wearing protective clothing because he is loading frozen tuna into a cargo net to move the catch to carrier during transhipment. On deck temperature may be 35°C, but where he is working is around –15°C. (On a longliner, the freezer may get down to –35°C.) On this kind of day, Salim starts at 7 am and finishes at 10 pm, and has five breaks during the day.

Man in clothing to protect him from icy environment in ship's hold with part of a tuna. Photo Francisco Blaha
Because of the restricted space on a fishing vessel, most of the work of handling tuna is hard manual labour. This crew member is working in the freezer of a longliner, where the temperature may be as low as –35°C. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Crew members’ rights are protected when working in waters of FFA states

Salim’s rights as an employee are complex. In principle, they depend on the flag state of the vessel, but unfortunately there many loopholes that allow some operators to circumvent these. 

Until recently, fisheries authorities of coastal state and port states had very limited scope on what they could do when labour rights where abused, since they were considered labour issues and not fisheries offences. But in momentous move, FFA’s member states ruled that vessels allowed to fish in their waters must comply with labour standards as part of the regionally harmonised minimum terms and conditions (MTCs) for access by fishing vessels. The labour component of the MTCs are based on the International Labour Organisation’s standard C188, Working in Fishing Convention.

This is momentous because, since 1 January 2020, if a vessel does not uphold these labour rights and conditions as part of their licensing, its right to fish can be removed and the vessel would not be in good standing. This is the first time in the world that a direct link has been made between labour standards and the right to fish by a coalition of coastal states!

This is good for Salim, as his rights are protected as long as the vessel fishes in the waters of FFA members. 

While we can help protect what he earns, we do not influence how much he earns. Crew in Salim’s deckhand position earn around US$350 a month. A fisher doing the same work but from a country with a stronger labour set-up and unions or a flag state that applies its domestic laws to its vessels would earn four or five times that.

So why do people like Salim do this work? Simply, because the work opportunities in his home country are so limited that this actually a good deal for him. And although this fact can be used to justify his very limited earnings, one could argue strongly that it fits under the definition of exploitation of labour.

Four men on a tuna fishing vessel maintaining equipment. Photo Francisco Blaha.
While the fishing vessel is looking for the next catch of tuna, crew members attend to maintenance tasks. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

But international guidelines on working conditions remain voluntary

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is in the process of developing guidelines for social responsibility in the fishing industry. However, they are being watered down by some powerful countries that are bent on maintaining the status quo to keep labour costs low, so as to maximise profits from fishing. As with most of the UN instruments, unless signed by nations, they remain voluntary

Although people such as Salim are meant to be the main beneficiaries of these guidelines, it may be a long time before Salim sees working conditions similar to those of fishers from developed nations.

The issue of labour right in fisheries is very complex, multifaceted and political and, as with most difficult problems, there are never easy answers. Yet there are many good people trying to work it out. Initiatives like FFA’s MTCs are a solid start in what is a marathon and not a sprint.

My approach to the work ahead would be from two parallel angles. On one side are regulatory frameworks, and international agreements under flag, coastal, and port state jurisdiction. On the other are private sector due diligence, since at the end of the day consumers in rich market states would not be keen to buy if they have doubts about the human cost of their fish. 

So, the importers have the chance to influence the international supply chains to see labour conditions and earnings of crew raised. (Hopefully, this would be supported with a price difference.) 

For all this, it is important that you don’t pity Salim and many other thousands like him in many jobs in the world. Pity the circumstances they live in, and shame the operators that exploit those circumstances.People like Salim are some of the most resilient, positive, nicest, and most innovative and determined people Ihave ever met and worked with. Without these qualities, they wouldn’t be alive.

Three fishers stand among hundreds of tuna in a ship's hold. Photo Francisco Blaha.
Crew members of a purse-seiner will unload or tranship a tuna catch that weighs anything from 700 tons to 1,700 tons. Photo: Francisco Blaha.

Three-month ban on use and servicing of FADs from 20°N to 20°S begins on 1 July

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Republished from the Western & Central Pacific Fisheries Commission

Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei

Deadline: 1 Jul 2019 to 1 Oct 2019

A three-month prohibition on deploying, servicing or setting on FADs shall be in place between 0001 hours UTC on 1 July and 2359 hours UTC on 30 September each year for all purse seine vessels, tender vessels, and any other vessels operating in support of purse seine vessels fishing in exclusive economic zones and the high seas in the area between 20N and 20S.*

*Members of the PNA may implement the FAD set management measures consistent with the Third Arrangement Implementing the Nauru Agreement of May 2008. Members of the PNA shall provide notification to the Commission of the domestic vessels to which the FAD closure will not apply. That notification shall be provided within 15 days of the arrangement being approved.