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In November 2023, it was reported that another fisheries observer Samuel Abayitey, while on board tuna vessel Marine 707 was missing and there was no information from either the vessel owners or crew about the circumstances leading to his disappearance. The Fisheries Commission (FC) and the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development (MoFAD) have not indicated knowledge of what possibly happened to the fisheries observer. Barely a month after the incident, a decapitated body, alleged to be the body of Samuel Abayitey, was washed ashore near Tema.
While investigations are ongoing to ascertain what happened to Samuel Abayitey on board Marine 707, no concrete information is available from an earlier investigation by relevant authorities to unravel the disappearance of a fisheries observer, Emmanuel Essien, while on board the Chinese trawler Meng Xin 15 in July 2019.
The disappearance of Emmanuel Essien, coincidentally occurred after his work as a fisheries observer on board the Chinese trawler Jin Hao 608 on 24 June 2019 in which he had captured video evidence of the vessel engaging in “saiko” (an illegal act of transferring fish from the trawler to a canoe at sea).
It was alleged that before Essien went on board Meng Xin 15, he had given a statement to the police on the allegations of “saiko” against Jin Hao 608.
For CEMLAWS Africa, the disappearance of a second fisheries observer is a significant concern for fisheries management and fisheries law enforcement, because of the roles and functions of observers. According to section 100 of the Fisheries Act, 2002 (Act 625), fisheries observers are embarked on sea-going or outbound fishing vessels to; collect catch and effort data, take samples of fish for scientific purposes, and report on fisheries violations on fishing vessels.
When on board a fishing vessel to perform these functions, the observer is the public official on that vessel, thus, being missing in the course of their duty curtails the country’s capability of performing the mandated functions. The observer embodies the “eyes of the state” at sea to ensure that the law and regulations are obeyed.
In August 2017, through the West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme (WARFP), over 100 fisheries observers were trained and appointed to perform observer functions. This brought hope that the State would have an improved fisheries governance and monitoring regime.
As such, the loss of these observers is a disturbing concern as it delimits the ability of the State to supervise fishing activities at sea and compromises fishing biological data necessary for the sustainable management of our fisheries.
While we condole with the family on the disappearance of Samuel Abayitey, we also reckon that it is early days yet to regard the disappearance as the death of the observer, or the discovery of the decapitated body to be that of Samuel. We empathize with the family, and we can imagine how long they would endure the agony. It is expected that, the police would promptly investigate the circumstances leading to his disappearance on board Marine 707.
Perhaps it is time for the FC/MoFAD, to implement the insurance provisions of the Fisheries Act to compensate the family of the observers when investigations conclude that they are dead. Government has a responsibility to provide full insurance coverage for observers for the duration of their duties at sea.
The relevant question at this crucial time is whether insurance coverage has been instituted for unfortunate events such as the death of an observer. The second disappearance of an observer urgently requires an inquiry into the disappearances of both observers. All the angles and possibilities must be explored in great detail. These disappearances could be due to homicide, inadequate security, or lack of basic safety requirements, among other possibilities, while on board fishing vessels. Unlike Emmanuel Essien who may have witnessed the commission of a fishery offence to draw a conspiracy theory for his disappearance, little is known about Samuel Abayitey’s. Several questions linger! It is worth assessing the safety conditions under which observers work on vessels and the key safety measures required to avoid a repeat of the disappearance of a third observer. The State has a responsibility to ensure the safety of observers at sea and to protect them from danger