Government observers have been bullied and harassed repeatedly while monitoring the New Zealand fishing industry, according to an internal report uncovered by 1News.
The formal review, ordered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), details dozens of highly concerning health and safety violations reported by observers on commercial vessels, revealing a hidden world of intimidation, fights and violent threats.
The document casts a shadow over the entire fishing industry in this country, giving the public a rare view into what happens to get seafood on our tables.
MPI ordered the review following two serious incidents on separate fishing boats in 2019, where one observer reported being subjected to “repeated sexual harassment” and another reported a sexual assault.
Independent reviewer Rachael Schmidt-McCleave spent a year on the probe and found “thematic” and “consistent” problems facing the observer workforce, with 250 separate health and safety incidents recorded on offshore vessels between August 2012 and August 2019.
The report was finalised in December 2020 and does not mention any company specifically, looking instead at the industry as a whole. It has never been published by MPI, and can only be reported here following an Official Information Act request from 1News.
The document shows observers detailed 17 “personal security incidents”, including potential intimidation with a firearm, bullying and intimidation by crew and by trainers, sexual harassment, threats of violence, fights amongst crew and assault while off a vessel.
Further injuries recorded by observers included an amputation, a systemic jaw infection, broken teeth, an infected cyst, crushing, bruising, slips and sprains.
Observers also found multiple serious examples of poor health and safety, including boats operating in unsafe conditions, broken gear on vessels, over-population of crew, expired fire extinguishers and expired life rafts, drug use on board and an ammonia leak.
Reviewer Rachael Schmidt-McCleave conducted several interviews with observing staff and found they “worry generally” about their health and safety while deep out at sea.
The expeditions can last as long three months, leaving the public servants isolated in an ocean environment and unable to leave at short notice.
They typically work alone and, according to the reviewer, have been regularly bullied and harassed by the private companies they monitor.
“Bullying and harassment has occurred extensively while observers are deployed on vessels, and in supervisors fielding communications from vessels,” Schmidt-McCleave wrote.
“This has not always been reported until recent work done to encourage reporting, and historically both observers and supervisors have viewed it simply as part of the role.”
She added that some fishing companies had “excellent processes”, with support from the skipper and senior crew, but others were “not so welcoming”.
“Observers may be treated with disrespect by the crew, or even be subjected to bullying behaviours,” she said.
Many were too scared to raise complaints during the voyage due to a “fear of becoming a target” and witnessing poor treatment of others who complained. They also had a lack of trust of those on board to properly resolve issues, the reviewer said.
Even supervisors had experienced bullying behaviour when dealing with crew on vessels, with some companies “regularly being abusive”.
Schmidt-McCleave made 19 recommendations to MPI, including the creation of a special women’s network group and new ways to contact head office from sea. The Ministry fully accepted 17 and partially accepted two.
A head manager at MPI’s observer unit, Charlotte Austin, said the department had come a long way since the findings came in.
“We have an absolute zero tolerance for bullying and harassment and we need to work together to make sure all of our people get to go out to sea and come home safe and unharmed,” she told 1News in an interview.
“We've made extensive, extensive improvements in the health and safety space, that includes resources that we've brought in, three additional staff focusing on health and safety, all of our processes.”
Austin added that MPI had updated its training and were looking at new ways to keep observers safe.
“We are looking at some policy changes that may be made for protection,” she said.
“We've completely overhauled our training regime, we're looking at rolling out a completely new training module for all observers [and] we're working on the training-designed model for sensitive disclosure.”
Seafood New Zealand, a professional body representing the commercial fishing industry, expressed dismay at news of bullying at sea.
“It's completely unacceptable, it is abhorrent, we will be working with MPI and other Government agencies to make sure anybody on board vessel whether they're an observer or crew has a safe working environment,” chief executive Jeremy Helson said.
“It's an inherently dangerous environment working at sea, accidents will happen but it's absolutely paramount we do everything we can to reduce the harm.”
But Craig Harrison, of the Maritime Union of New Zealand, believes incidents may be even higher when observers are not on board. The public servants don’t join every voyage, leaving many commercial operators to self-report.
“What happens out at sea is usually hidden out at sea,” Harrison said.
“We only need to look back at the number of fires and ships sinking, and that's what we know about, so you can expect there'll be a lot of under-reporting.”
He also highlighted how many consumers were becoming concerned about ethical issues like safety.
“The industry has changed and if they're found to be basically unethical, in regards to the environment and human rights issues, in the end the market will shift and the consumer won't want their product,” he said.
“The industry has to want to change itself, because as the consumer becomes more aware, they might not want to actually buy New Zealand seafood.”
People at home left to wonder whether anyone was hurt, putting seafood on their table.