POHNPEI, 13 APRIL 2020 (SUNDAY STAR TIMES/STUFF NZ) —On a sweltering but calm afternoon, EritaraAatiKaierua left the island of Pohnpei, Micronesia on his final journey. Aboard a rusting Taiwanese fishing vessel he sailed south-east, leaving behind mangrove swamps on the shore line, and passing low coral atolls, beyond the breakwater before reaching the deep-blue of the Pacific.
He would never leave that ship. In less than five weeks, the 40-year-old would be dead, found lying on the floor of his locked cabin with a brutal head wound and bruising to his neck.
Kaierua’s death is now under investigation by Kiribati police, with assistance from Fijian pathologist. The father-of-four is the tenth Pacific fisheries observer to die on the lawless high seas in the last decade.
The tragedy has sparked a call for more protection for this vulnerable workforce, who often face hostility from captains and crews. And it’s brought to light the mysterious deaths of two more i-Kiribati monitors in the last three years.
Kaierua grew up on the Tarawara atoll in Kiribati, a central Pacific island nation that straddles the equator.
The sea was his playground and he and sister Nikora“Nicky”Kaierua would play hide and seek on vessels moored in the lagoon. “He was my best friend in childhood,” she said.
Their father was a ship’s engineer and from the age of four, Kaierua dreamed of being a sea captain.
He graduated from a marine training centre and began sailing the world’s oceans, working on cargo and oil ships. But these voyages took him away from his wife TekararaKabangaki and their three young children, and in 2012 he took a job as a fisheries observer, working for the Kiribati government.
These watchdogs travel aboard fishing fleets, tracking their catches including any endangered species by-catch. They make sure fishermen are following the rules and not dumping unwanted fish overboard. It’s vital to protect oceans and preserve fish stocks.
But it’s dangerous and isolating work and they sometimes face hostility from the crews they are watching. Tuna is a multi-billion dollar industry and the Pacific is it’s most lucrative fishing grounds.
Observer programmes are run by governments and regional fisheries management organisations but the monitors have no power to stop or sanction illegal activity. They can only watch, record and report.
In the past decade, ten observers have lost their lives on the vast stretch of ocean, with at least five under a cloud of suspicion. But the sea rarely gives up her secrets and these deaths have never been prosecuted.
“We’ve seen several instances over the last decade of observers that have gone missing or who have died under suspicious circumstances,” says Alfred “Bubba” Cook, an ocean conservationist for the World Wide Fund for Nature.
“They are responsible for collecting information that can ultimately be used in investigations against that vessel and its crew. They’re in a position where they’re, at best, a nuisance and, at worst, a threat to the crew and the company.
“So they’re constantly in a position of being subject to threats, intimidation, bribes.”
Kaierua experienced some of these tensions. In 2016, he told his sister about attempts to bribe him over a shark fin catch.
And in the year before he died, a crew turned on him after they were forced to offload tonnes of tuna in Tuvalu after officials check his log and found that it didn’t match that of the captain. Nicky Kaierua, 42, says her younger brother felt his life was put in danger.
“Eritara got so scared… After that incident, he would go out to do his work, come back and lock himself up in his room.
“In the mess room, he was so fearful of being poisoned that he would grab the sailors food rather than eating the serve allocated for him.
“Most of the time he would eat noodles and biscuits, his own rations, in his room. He came off that boat and he reported it to Kiribati Fisheries.”
His next posting was aboard a sister ship, and Nicky Kaierua said he was afraid. “Putting him aboard the sister boat showed safety wasn’t a priority. But he came back alive and he was really thankful for that.
“The system appears to lack safety risk management. Had there been a robust and effective system with a good reporting, lives could have been more protected and accidents could have been prevented.”
Kaierua’s last voyage was aboard Win Far 636, a 30-year old tuna purse seiner, owned by KuoHsiung Fishery, based in Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City. The local Kiribati agent for the vessel was the government-owned company, Central Pacific Products Limited (CCPL).
According to Kaierua’s log, seen by his family, he boarded the vessel at 2.20pm on February 13. The vessel’s tracking technology was switched off so their voyage is unclear.
His death was reported on March 3 in waters off Nauru. The Taiwanese government alerted the multi-national regulatory body Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission and the Kiribati government.
The mainly Vietnamese crew opted to sail to Kiribati, but arrived a day later than expected. The ship was immediately impounded when it arrived.
Two of the crew were arrested, but then released after questioning.
An autopsy revealed Kaierua died of a severe blow to the back of the head. On March 29 local police opened a murder inquiry.
Stuff understands he was found partially laying on his mattress which was on the floor. There was blood on his nose and there was food on his chest and neck.
Nicky Kaieru lost her brother Eritara at sea. She wants a thorough police investigation.
MamaraUbatoi, of the Kiribati police, told Stuff the crew were cooperating: “According to the pathologist Eritara was murdered…We also have information that the [ship’] signalling device was off around the date and time of Eritara’s demise,” he said.
“We are still suspicious when they didn’t report to Nauru and took so long for them to come to Kiribati. The case is still under investigation.”
Nicky Kaierua said her family are anxious for answers and want a “solid” investigation. “I know the police are giving it their best shot but I also know police are not 100 per cent familiar with accidents at sea.
“We want to get to the bottom of this. For the industry to learn from, for the observer programme or fisheries industry to learn from and to prevent the re-occurrence and mainly justice for my brother.
“We are hoping, we are praying.”
She said her brother was conscientious and took his job seriously. “He was obedient, you know. He never broke the rules, even as a child.”
UatiTirikai heads Kiribati’s fisheries observer programme. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Neither CCPL, the Ministry of Fisheries nor Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency answered questions.
The investigation has drawn attention to two other i-Kiribati deaths since December 2017, which the Association for Professional Observers, and WWF says they were previously unaware of.
MaonnikiNawii was found dead in his cabin aboard the Yu Wen 301 on December 18, 2017. He’d failed to show up for breakfast.
The vessel was in Papua New Guinea waters, but the captain request it dock in the Marshall Islands. It was instead directed to Honiara and Solomon Islands police carried out an investigation, at the request of Kiribati. It’s understood authorities concluded that he died of “hypertension.”
His wife couldn’t be reached for comment, but she marked the second anniversary of his death on Facebook, saying: “They said that he slept and never woke up but [I] don’t trust what they said.” A relative added: “He was found on the job unable to wake up…it’s a suspicious case. That’s why we don’t trust what was reported on him. He passed and lays to rest now next to everyone under the shade of the house.”
Little is known about the death of AntinTamwabeti, who is believed to have died by suicide, onshore.
Kaierua’s death has sent shockwaves around the observer community, which has long been calling for greater protection and safety conditions.
In 2010, Charlie Lasisi’s body was found, bound in chains, off the coast of West Sepik, Papua New Guinea in March. Six Filipino crew members were acquitted of his murder.
Wesley Talia was reported missing in the waters of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, in 2015.
Larry Gavin went missing at sea in 2016 but his disappearance is so mysterious, there was no record of which ship he was working on. There was never an investigation into his death.
Fijian UsaiaMasibalavu was lost in 2016, after reportedly falling ill two-weeks after boarding a vessel that left Pago Pago, American Samoa.
In the same year, Josh Sheldon, from the US, died of an advanced MRSA infection allegedly contracted on a Vietnamese longline fishing vessel.
James Numbaru went missing in Nauru waters in June 2017. He was aboard a Chinese-flagged purse seiner and his body was never recovered, but the crew said he’d fallen overboard.
Cook fears there may be more. “Consider that we didn’t even know about Maonniki until a little more than a week ago. How many more do we not know about in the last 30 years of observer deployments?”
Keeping track of harassment and casualties is difficult because systematic recording is non-existent, and the investigation of complaints falls into a bureaucratic black hole, with governments and regional fisheries management organisation slow to follow up and reluctant to prosecute.
In 2015, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC), responsible for fisheries regulations in the region, implemented safety and security measures to protect observers.
But Liz Mitchell, of the Association for Professional Observers, says these must go further.
“There must be some accountability.
“I’d like to see a measure in place that would require these vessels have a storage capacity for their CCTV footage. So, that if something happens there’s that evidence. Right now, I think what they’re doing is just taping over it every day.”
Covid-19 travel restrictions meant Nicky Kaierua was the only one of four siblings who could make it back to Kiribati to bury their brother. The rest are scattered around the world.
Her “biggest worry” is for Kaierua’s widow Tekarara, her children and their financial future. “She seems to be braver than me right now. She’s got emotional strength but I know she is crying inside.
“The kids are missing their father, they keep thinking he is coming home. He was a very good father, he adored his kids.” …. PACNEWS