Female fishing observer 'repeatedly sexually harassed' in nightmare Talley's voyage

Source: 1News

A 1News investigation can reveal New Zealand fishing giant Talley’s had a vessel flagged as “high risk” over a nightmare 10-week voyage, where a female observer reported being repeatedly sexually harassed while isolated at sea.

Previously unreleased documents show the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) ordered an industry-wide probe into bullying and harassment of fishing observers, following the ordeal on board a boat operated by the Talley’s family in late 2019.

The year-long review, which also followed an unrelated incident at a separate company, was completed in December 2020 and found bullying and harassment of observers had “occurred extensively” across the industry.

Do you have more information about Talley’s fishing operations? Email Thomas.Mead@tvnz.co.nz

The details have never been made public until now, and raise new questions about the safety of employees at Talley’s food manufacturing operation.

The company produces large volumes of seafood, vegetables, meat and dairy products for the New Zealand market.

They have long attracted workers to their deep-sea fishing operation Amaltal with the promise of high pay and safe voyages. But fears about their safety record persist, and Talley’s has recently been placed under a “top to bottom review” by the Government workplace safety watchdog WorkSafe, after seven whistleblowers came forward to 1News about their factories.

Additional documents obtained by 1News under the Official Information Act, which are reported here for the first time, now show concerning incidents that have also been flagged on Talley’s boats.

The rare insight into the company’s practices is possible thanks to fishing observers, who are appointed by the Government and work as an independent oversight of fishing operations.

Official logs, internal emails and reports show one voyage in particular caused widespread concern amongst Government officials, with a female observer reporting multiple issues on a Talley’s vessel in late 2019.

The woman reported being subjected to “repeated sexual harassment” from two crew members while at sea for 10 weeks. Exact details of what happened have been redacted, but records show it involved "sexually suggestive comments". Internal emails later describe a "serious incident" and "alleged sexual misconduct".

The ordeal played out during a deep-sea fishing expedition, an extremely isolated environment where observers are generally unable to leave easily.

It was one of 20 health and safety incidents reported by observers on Talley’s vessels between 2019 and 2021.

While some are more typical trips and falls, a significant report was made in July this year, when a fire broke out in the engine room of the Talley’s boat Amaltal Enterprise. The observer on board detailed how the blaze cut off the main power, forcing the engineer to shut the vents and fuel supply to contain the flames.

The boat was left broken, forcing the crew to cut their trawl gear loose and request a tow back. The matter is still under a maritime investigation but is described as a “high potential” incident in internal emails, meaning it could have resulted in serious injury or death.

Talley’s have since highlighted how the fire was put out “quickly”, with no medical evacuation necessary and no one requiring medical attention, adding “the expertise and professionalism displayed by the officers and crew dealing with this fire was exemplary”.

The company has acknowledged a fire at sea is a significant event and say all crew undergo regular training on how to deal with a variety of scenarios – and that includes fires.

But emails at MPI also describe the toll it took on the crew, with an official writing they were “safe” but “freaked”.

‘A lack of co-operation’ – Talley’s Keep Report Secret

While Government officials were working to follow-up the report of sexual harassment, internal emails describe a “lack of co-operation” from the bosses at Talley’s.

The company appointed a private investigator to conduct their own independent investigation shortly after the incident, and emails to MPI show they initially promised to take matters “seriously”.

Chief executive Tony Hazlett reinforced that message in a statement this week following questioning from 1News.

“Talley’s regards any incident of bullying or harassment as a serious matter, as outlined in our company’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies,” he said.

Hazlett claimed one of the crew members involved had been put through a disciplinary process and the other “left Talley’s employ” shortly after the report was made. But internal emails show Talley’s stopped responding to officials after the incident and refused to share the results of their private investigation with MPI.

A terms of reference document shows MPI initially expected the company to provide “an outcome of the investigation” and an update on “what is being done by Talley’s to prevent this from happening again”.

But by March 2020 – four months after the incident – nothing had been received.

Senior Fisheries officer Zane Duncan wrote to a colleague for help. “I have been chasing this up for quite a white but have not had a response from Talley’s regarding their investigation,” he said in an email. “Can you please follow this up at a higher level?”

An email from a head manager at the observer unit shows the investigation results were still missing by September 2020, around one year after the incident took place.

Independent barrister Rachael Schmidt-McCleave, who had been appointed by MPI to conduct a review of bullying and harassment across the industry, had written in looking for a copy.

“Did you ever receive a copy of Talley’s report?” she asked in an email. “I didn’t despite several reminders to their lawyer”. An MPI official responded saying “we never received anything from Talley’s”. They added “co-operation has not been forthcoming on this”. Schmidt-McCleave agreed, writing “that lack of co-operation will be reflected in my findings”.

MPI continued to monitor the Talley’s boat involved and labelled it “high risk” as recently as June 2020, running additional controls before placing a new observer on board.

Their officials also denounced the Talley’s employees involved in internal emails, with one supervisor noting it was the “first time” senior staff had encountered an allegation of sexual harassment on a vessel. “MPI’s position on what happened on board was that [what they] experienced was sexual harassment,” he wrote in one email.

“It is unacceptable for a MPI staff member to be treated this way while at work, whether on an MPI controlled site or on board a fishing vessel. A strong message needs to be sent to the industry as to how MPI staff are to be treated.”

Head manager Charlotte Austin, director of verification and operations at MPI, added this week that the Ministry has “absolute zero tolerance for bullying and harassment”.

“I want to be very, very clear that that type of behaviour is unacceptable,” she said in an interview. “It has to be taken seriously and that is why we furthered the case with this, because the person involved felt strongly enough that it had to be raised.”

The Ministry had received 19 recommendations for improvement from their own industry-wide review of bullying and harassment at sea, and had accepted or partially accepted all of them, Austin added.

It had led to an overhaul of their practices in a significant body of work.

“We've made extensive, extensive improvements in the health and safety space. That includes resources that we've brought in, three additional staff focusing particularly on health and safety, all of our processes,” she said.

Talley’s did not respond to questions from 1News about why they kept their investigation results secret. They also would not confirm whether they saw the matter as sexual harassment, and instead referred to it as “inappropriate comments” in their statement.

They did not respond to a question on whether Talley’s was a safe workplace for women.

The full account of that 72 days on a Talley’s boat

Further detail in the documents show the female observer who reported the sexual harassment also endured several other issues on the same voyage.

In one case, the observer, who is not named, wrote a logbook entry describing how an incinerator had caught fire in the middle of the night. “A crew member was adding rubbish to the incinerator to burn when a spark came out,” the log reads.

“The crew member stomped it and had the assistant factory manager check that it was safe. Approximately 15 minutes later the cage caught fire, which was discovered by the first mate on CCTV. The vessel crew extinguished the fire using the hydrant hose.”

The observer also noted a poor emergency response drill, saying the crew lowered a z-boat into the water in a “very manual” and “time consuming” way, taking 20 minutes to carry out a simulated rescue of a person going overboard.

She described other “uncomfortable” comments from the crew about her observing work, with logs showing that workers hassled her during fish sampling and suggested the effort was affecting their income.

“The past few days I have been getting over it, and today a crew member hit me up about it again and was angry/frustrated at me,” she wrote in a notebook. “I finished my sampling then had a chat to him and asked that he stop harassing me about it.”

Three days later, one of her observing books – a red notebook – suddenly disappeared.

“Have searched everywhere for it and have come to the conclusion that it must have fallen out of my pocket,” the observer wrote. Searches the next morning proved fruitless.

“Checked everywhere I could think of for red notebook, still unable to be located or seen by any crew members,” she wrote. But by the following day, the notebook had “magically turned up” in her drawer in the factory manager’s office.

On her return to shore in late 2019, she also detailed the “repeated sexual harassment” and Government officials began to follow up, as did Talley’s with their own independent investigation. 

The incidents from the voyage contributed to MPI’s decision to order an independent review of bullying and harassment of fishing observers.

By December 2020, barrister Rachael Schmidt-McCleave had found multiple issues across the commercial fishing world.

She made 19 recommendations which have now been fully or partially implemented by MPI, giving observers better ways to report problems and new procedures to follow, helping to ensure their safety at sea.

“Sadly, due to the unique and challenging nature of the roles of observers and supervisors as I have outlined in this report, bullying and harassment has occurred extensively while observers are deployed on vessels,” her report reads.

Words which must certainly ring true for the woman who spent 72 days on that Talley's boat.

On Monday, 1News will investigate the wider impact of that review into the bullying and harassment in the fishing industry, uncovering a hidden world of problems at sea.