SIU requests Fisheries and Oceans Canada look into issues for at-sea fish observers

June 11, 2020

The following letter was sent by the SIU to the Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Harbour Management at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

June 3, 2020

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)

VIA EMAIL

Sylvie Lapointe

Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Harbour Management

RE: At-Sea Fish Observers

Ms. Lapointe,

I write to you today on behalf of a number of members of the Seafarers’ International Union of Canada (“SIU”) employed as at-sea fish observers. The SIU represents the majority of Canadian and permanent resident seafarers working aboard vessels operating on the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence River, on the East Coast, West Coast and Arctic Regions. As you can imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has generated some significant modifications as to how companies are operating in the maritime industry at large, with significant impacts on the commercial fishing industry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused undue hardship for our members employed as at-sea fish observers. Under the recently released Fisheries Management Order (FMO-2020-03), at-sea observers are being permitted to return to work, subject to certain specific criterion including guidelines on safety measures for preventing further spread of the virus. While this is positive news, we write to bring to your attention an important issue by which the DFO fails to address an underlying problem with respect to the roles of both at-sea observer companies and fish harvesting companies.

As outlined in the FMO, the onus falls on the at-sea observer companies to deploy safe working procedures related to COVID-19 that align with federal, provincial and/or territorial guidelines in place. At-sea observer companies are required to ensure that safe working procedures are in place on vessels on which their observers are deployed and must keep a record of these procedures for presentation to a fishery officer upon request. In addition, if the presence of an observer is refused, then the observer is required to file a non-conformity report or complaint.

This presents a significant conflict for at-sea observer companies since operators of fishing vessels are at liberty to change observer companies, without any form of justification, from one contract to the next. This inherently creates a situation in which observer companies are under significant pressure not to report occurrences that may be construed as “negative” against the fishing companies.

In order to maintain a positive business relationship and ultimately remain in the employ of certain companies, there exists, through no fault of the at-sea observers and their employer, an unintended consequence of the program in that at-sea observers become more likely to lose their contracts if they make several complaints about the vessel they are deployed on.

From the perspective of ensuring accurate enforcement and ensuring the continued existence of an impartial at-sea observer program, this model simply does not make sense.

In addition, at-sea observers have already been put at a disadvantage since the onset of the Pandemic as the DFO imposed a temporary ban on the carriage of at-sea observers during the commencement of the season, ending May 15, 2020. Observer companies have taken on substantial increases in expenses since the easing of restrictions to permit observers to return to the vessels, by assuming the costs related to obtaining personal protective equipment and in some cases, paying their own expenses related to isolation time required by certain fishing companies prior to joining the vessel. None of which guarantees fish harvesters will let them board the vessel. In some cases, harvesters have implemented their own restrictions and additional company guidelines to further restrict observers from joining the vessels. This added to the fact that provincial policy varies from one province to another, further complicates the situation.

We strongly advise the DFO to review the current situation to reconsider the current enforcement and oversight structure and provide adequate support to at-sea observers whose livelihoods depend just as much on the industry as the fish harvesters themselves. If harvesters continue to mount barriers to prevent observers from joining their vessels, this will undoubtedly lead to a significant drop in the number of observers available in the future as observer companies are already facing declining retention numbers as well as difficulties attracting new recruits. This situation threatens to further worsen an already precarious situation.

On behalf of our members employed as at-sea fish observers, the SIU strongly advises the DFO to support observer companies by contacting vessel owners to strongly encourage them to abide by the program and allow observers to return on board without creating unnecessary impediments to their return to the vessels. We encourage the DFO to also consider permitting observer companies to perform dock-side sampling if situations arise where they are unable to board the vessels. We also suggest that the DFO coordinate with provincial governments to determine under which conditions observers can board in order to have a more uniform policy from coast to coast.

In a similar vein, we have also contacted the Department of Finance Canada to stress the importance of ensuring adequate financial supports are in place to provide observer companies and observers with the same resources and support that has been extended to cover fish harvesters and commercial fishing companies under the assistance programs being created or extended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The SIU believes that the at-sea observer program is of abundant importance as it permits both the monitoring of fishing activity as well as the respect of DFO policies regarding ecology and sustainable fishing, which are under constant scrutiny from public opinion. It is of the utmost necessity to support the Observer companies who oversee the success of this policy and we ask that your department solve the aforementioned inconsistencies in the Program which currently put observers at an unreasonable disadvantage.

Please do not hesitate to contact our offices to discuss this matter further.

Kind regards,

Patrice Caron

Executive Vice-President

Seafarers’ International Union of Canada