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Docs show turmoil in DFO following fisheries harassment investigation: ‘this article is horrific’

Freedom of information documents reveal that DFO has created a suite of new policies and is spending millions on modernization in wake of whistleblowers speaking up about harassment, intimidation and assault aboard Canadian fishing vessels

This story is a co-production between The Narwhal and VICE World News.

Two years after fisheries observers came forward to talk about harassment, intimidation, assault, sexual assault and threats aboard fishing vessels, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has created a suite of new policies intended to limit harassment and is spending millions of dollars on modernization — but is refusing to talk about it. 

Whistleblowers within the trawl industry went on the record for investigations published in The Narwhal and VICE World News after DFO, Canada’s regulator of commercial fisheries, failed to take steps to make working conditions safer for at-sea observers.

While the department has been silent on its inner workings, internal documents released to VICE and The Narwhal through access to information legislation show that below the surface there has been a steady flow of activity at DFO offices in response to revelations published in the investigations. 

Observers are the eyes and ears of the public aboard fishing vessels, reporting information about illegal fishing, the kinds of fish being caught, accidental bycatch, vessel location and more to DFO, under whose purview observers are assigned to fishing vessels. But as earlier reporting revealed, observers — often young women, working alone on vessels mostly crewed by men — suffer from workplace abuse, with many recounting stories of being screamed at by boat captains, coerced into falsifying their reports and sexually abused, among other mistreatment. 

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The result of that intimidation, whistleblowers say, is systematic under-reporting of the amount of accidentally caught fish and deliberate malfeasance — because observers do not feel safe enough to speak out about infractions that could jeopardize vessel permits and profits.

“You are all alone out there, and nobody wants you there,” said one female former observer, who said she, as a recent biology graduate, had spent a year being subjected to a gauntlet of sexual harassment and violent intimidation on trawlers before quitting. 

That reporting kicked off a lumbering internal response at DFO that, while happening behind closed doors, is still ongoing. 

Illustration of herring and turbot on the deck of a fishing boat.
A culture of intimidation aboard trawlers led to a decades-long undercounting of bycatch that was dumped back out to sea, former observers have said. Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

More than 700 pages of documents, received by VICE and The Narwhal, show an emotional response within the department to the allegations raised in reporting published by both outlets in 2020 and 2021.

“This article is horrific,” wrote Adam Keizer, a DFO regional manager, in an email to three colleagues on Feb. 9, 2021, the morning the investigation was published in VICE. “I know we’ve discussed the limitations about what DFO can do with respect to harassment of [observers], but we must have a discussion about what is within our means to ensure [they] are protected.” 

The earlier discussions Keizer is referring to were regarding the incidents reported in the 2020 article in The Narwhal

“Agreed Adam, I’ve just finished reading this. It is very upsetting and extremely troubling,” a colleague, Neil Davis, replied. 

Keizer declined to comment for this article, citing DFO communications policies. Over the course of two years of reporting and interview requests, DFO has never made anyone available to talk about the allegations or the department’s response, preferring instead to send bullet-point written responses. Requests for interviews with three officers who the documents show were on the front lines of the response and pushing internally for change were also declined.

Multiple requests for interviews with federal fisheries minister Joyce Murray were initially deflected. In late February, a spokesperson for the minister wrote, “I spoke with my DComm [director of communications] who agrees with me that its (sic) important to Canadians that the minister speak on these issues.” 

A month later, the line had changed. The minister would not be made available at all. “Heather McCready is best positioned to get you the information that you’re looking for (sic) your story.”

McCready is the director general for conservation and protection, who has been leading the internal changes in response to the allegations over the past year.

That interview was cancelled two hours before it was set to begin. In an emailed statement, in lieu of an interview and sent at the same time, the department said it “does not and will not tolerate harassment of at-sea observers” — the exact same wording that appeared in media lines more than two years ago.

In the absence of access to DFO officials, the recently released documents shed light on a department that is both confused regarding its responsibility to the observers working on its behalf, and frustrated by its own inability to respond. The department recognizes the problem, but according to emails, briefing notes and meeting minutes, appears unsure of how to address it. 

However the internal documents also reveal the department quietly responded to the allegations with one major measure: entirely new sections of its nation-wide observer policy devoted to harassment, amounting to dozens of significant changes intended to protect observers. 

The revised policy was meant to be released last spring, but has yet to see the light of day. In an email to VICE and The Narwhal, five months after we received the documents and following repeated requests for comment, DFO cast doubt on the legitimacy of its own draft policy.

“The documents you have obtained through ATIP reflect work that has been done, and in some cases continues, to explore options for future consideration of the At-Sea Observers Program,” a spokesperson wrote. “We have nothing else to add in terms of your questions below – at this time, there isn’t a new policy related to the At-sea Observers Program.”

Illustration of helicopter coming to the rescue of person in foreground with transponder.
At-sea observers are dependent on the ship’s own systems to communicate with the authorities in serious situations. In jurisdictions like Alaska, observers are given personal locator beacons as a safe and secure form of communication. Illustration: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

‘Shut him down’ 

A week into 2020, Misty MacDuffee, the wild salmon program director at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, reached out to The Narwhal with a tip. MacDuffee had heard from an observer that people in his position were being mistreated at sea, and that it had major consequences for how bycatch — sea life that is unintentionally caught and sometimes has to be discarded — is reported.

“I think it is atrocious and needs to be exposed,” MacDuffee wrote in her email. 

That email set off the investigations that would run, respectively, in The Narwhal five months later and in VICE a year later. 

The investigations took a long time, in part, because of a lack of cooperation on the part of DFO. The first interview request was sent to DFO by the end of January 2020. 

“Communications responded to the reporter with approved messaging,” reads a record of the interaction obtained through a separate access to information request. Keizer suggested in an email to communications staff that he himself could be a good source to explain what was happening in closed-door meetings with industry. “I think there will be value in speaking with the reporter,” he said. 

“If he wants to speak about any of the allegations, then DFO should not be speaking nor providing any kind of comment. [Sentence redacted by DFO]. My response to him last night should have shut him down continuing to poke DFO staff on this,” the communications staffer wrote back. “Just so you know, we are back to being in a ‘no surprises’ environment.” 

When the investigation in The Narwhal ran on May 6, 2020, detailing the kind of harassment MacDuffee had raised in her email and which DFO had declined to respond to, MacDuffee herself was taken aback. “It was worse than what I thought,” she said. 

Two weeks after publication, Kelly Andersen, a trawling skipper that five whistleblowers named as being among the perpetrators of the harassment, resigned from the industry group that oversees the trawling fleet. Andersen’s ships are still actively fishing in B.C.

Despite Anderson’s resignation, the public response to the harassment allegations by DFO remained muted. What the documents now reveal is that while an internal investigation by DFO dragged on, it would take the second investigative piece in VICE to fully get the wheels turning. 

Rocky island near Port Renfrew.
A tip at the start of 2020 kickstarted more than two years of reporting on the fisheries observer program. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Limited at-sea observer companies may have stymied DFO response to allegations

Within five hours of the VICE investigation reaching DFO staffers’ desks on the morning of Feb. 9, 2021, a briefing note had been put together for then-fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan.

The focus of the briefing note was that DFO is not directly responsible for the treatment of the observers who work on its behalf. 

“Canada’s National At-Sea Observer Program places designated private-sector observers aboard fishing vessels to monitor fishing activity,” the note read. “At-sea observers who feel they are being harassed are encouraged to report instances to their employer, as well as their local police.” 

While DFO mandates at-sea observers must be present aboard fishing vessels, observer services are contracted through private fishery observer companies like Archipelago Marine Research, a company accused by whistleblowers of failing to protect employees or penalizing them for speaking out. The internal briefing note does not indicate any steps DFO intended to take to protect the observers by holding companies such as Archipelago accountable.

However, by October 2021, a month after the VICE story appeared, a working group had been established, and the department had met with Archipelago to rake them over the coals regarding their labour practices. 

Sea gulls on rock barrier in Port Renfrew, B.C.. Despite repeated requests for interviews, DFO hasn’t made anyone available to talk about the observer program that runs along B.C.'s coast.
Despite repeated requests for interviews over the course of two years of reporting on the observer program, DFO hasn’t made anyone available to talk. Still, emails show there was a flurry of internal discussion. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

“I have serious concerns about their labour operations,” Keizer wrote to a colleague who was looking at whether or not to renew the company’s designation — a critical approval the company needed to operate. But according to meeting minutes, a lack of competition meant the department had few options; DFO could not have cut off Archipelago’s designation even if it had wanted to (and there is no evidence it did want to) without dealing a serious blow to the West Coast fishing fleet’s ability to operate because there were no other companies that could step in to provide the observers.

In an email, DFO confirmed that Archipelago is still designated as an at-sea observer company — and that in the history of the program “no at-sea observer corporation has lost its designation for at-sea observer-related activities.”

Meanwhile, the people in charge of industry compliance were scrambling to speak with the same people whose solutions had been put forth in The Narwhal and VICE investigations, including Jaclyn Smith, an investigator for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Liz Mitchell of the Society for Professional Observers.

Ann Bussell, a DFO investigator, asked her U.S. counterpart Smith about potential improvements that had been raised in the investigations, including giving observers their own independent communications systems rather than forcing them to rely on the ships’ radios or internet.

Bussell reached out to WorkSafeBC on Feb. 18, who said they were working on a plan and talking to their federal counterparts. She reported in an email to colleagues that she was feeling “very encouraged” that the provincial organization was willing to take action.

“They are familiar with the trawl vessels and companies,” she wrote. “They want to do more work on this as they know there are problems.” 

But when Bussell spoke with Mitchell a month later about how to support observers and help them report incidents of harassment, the DFO officer sounded frustrated, Mitchell recalls. (Bussell declined to speak with VICE and The Narwhal for this story. She has since retired.)

“She sounded genuinely concerned, but because of the employment arrangement with the outsourced companies … that’s kind of a conflict of interest,” Mitchell says.

That conflict was created following deep cuts to DFO under Stephen Harper’s Conservative government last decade; until 2013, DFO funded the program rather than industry. So one possibility the department explored to deal with its lack of oversight power was to go back to how things had been originally: either operating the entire program within DFO, or at least funding the observer role rather than leaving it up to the fishing companies. It also considered adding “increased legal obligations” for the companies involved, including monetary penalties. 

“May need extreme consequences for the fleet,” someone wrote in the minutes for a meeting that included multiple DFO divisions involved in fisheries enforcement.

It’s unclear which of these options, if any, were adopted — or if any fishermen, skippers, fishing companies or observer companies have ever been charged for the mistreatment of an observer.

But one major change — a change for which some had been agitating for years — would be accelerated in the wake of the pandemic, and conveniently it helped solve the harassment issue at the same time: take the observers off the trawlers altogether.

A shift to electronic monitoring

Jon Eis was among the whistleblowers who spoke to The Narwhal in 2020. He said he had been threatened and intimidated out of accurately reporting how much halibut was being discarded aboard the trawler Raw Spirit — and that DFO, and the industry, had done nothing to protect him. 

Jon Eis, pictured here by the water, took his concerns about his experiences as an observer to DFO but after seeing no action being taken, came forward to The Narwhal.
“Morals and ethics don’t pay,” Eis told The Narwhal in our initial investigation, pointing to the fine margin between profit and cost for skippers and crews. “If you follow the regulations you make less money.” Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Since the allegations surfaced, he’s had some hard conversations with people he had worked closely with for years, including fishermen, observers and the company that put him in that position, Archipelago. In all those conversations, he says no one has questioned the veracity of his story.

“No one’s ever called me a liar, in all of this. Even [Archipelago] has never called me a liar or a bullshitter.”

Now he’s working with industry insiders to create the next generation of technology that is already making observers like him obsolete.

Eis admits, in his classically straightforward fashion, that he has some discomfort now working within the industry: “I don’t know if I’m just a political pawn so they can tell DFO they’ve got the whistleblower.” But, he adds, “from what I can tell they’re absolutely taking this seriously.” 

The technological solution Eis is working on? Electronic monitoring. If the primary problems with observers are that they can’t be everywhere, electronic monitoring can be. If the problem is that observers can be cajoled or coerced into misreporting what they see, electronic monitoring can’t be. That’s the theory driving the technology forward, and it’s been underway since the mid 2010s. The pandemic, however, vastly accelerated the desire to replace people — who move from ship to ship and can spread COVID-19, potentially shutting multiple vessels down — with cameras.

When observers were abruptly ordered off ships in the early days of the pandemic, electronic monitoring was put forward as the natural replacement — on an interim basis.

“We had no choice; we couldn’t put observers on board [due to the pandemic]. Our whole fishery’s management is based on at-sea data collection,” says Bruce Turris, an industry insider who, along with Brian Mose, head of the Deep Sea Trawlers Association of British Columbia, is spearheading the work to make the change.

That data collection previously depended on the eyes and estimates of observers. Now, increasingly, it depends on high-definition cameras that are strategically placed throughout the ship. 

Every time the gear is moving, data is recording where the ship is and what is being used. Cameras capture every fish that passes through the sorting area, and grids all over the deck help size them. A human later watches a sample of that footage to compare it to what the ship’s own logbook recorded, and when discrepancies arise it costs the ship more money to pay for a deeper audit. 

It also costs the ship time if the audit has to be completed before it can leave the dock. That, Mose and Turris say, is the real deterrent.

The people doing that audit, often, are former observers themselves — only working from a warm, dry office instead of at sea.

Turris says that’s an improvement for everyone.

“[Electronic monitoring] works 24 hours a day and captures information in all places at all times, as opposed to an observer — even two observers.” 

Jon Eis holds an identification manual. Fisheries observers are mandated by DFO to have a presence on vessels and are responsible for taking biological samples and reporting the catch of prohibited species.
Eis flips through a species identification booklet at a beach in Victoria, B.C. Observers are responsible for taking biological samples and reporting the catch of prohibited species. Photo: Taylor Roades / The Narwhal

Turris and Mose downplay the role the whistleblowers’ allegations played in the acceleration of their electronic monitoring program. 

“I don’t mind saying that the whistleblower … when we were made aware about his complaint, [the revelations were] certainly alarming and disappointing,” Mose said.

The revelation “helped to accelerate the move,” Turris says. But there was more at play, including efficiency gains and the pandemic: “To be completely honest, outside of that, we were already on the path to [electronic monitoring]. I think COVID accelerated this exponentially.”

But a DFO memorandum for then-minister Jordan in May 2021 suggests that from the government’s perspective, the issues were much more closely related. The briefing memo lumps together the big issues that have been plaguing the observer program — harassment and a lack of jurisdiction to deal with it,  the financial strain on observer companies, and the pandemic — as the reasons to more widely overhaul the system. The changes proposed to deal with the multitude of problems include electronic monitoring and the new, as-yet unreleased, observer harassment policy. 

In September 2020, four months after the first investigation was released in The Narwhal, then-fisheries minister Jordan approved the creation of a $2 million fund to modernize the at-sea observer program, “focusing on addressing the vulnerabilities resulting from the current delivery model.” According to a briefing note, those vulnerabilities included “challenges in recruitment and retention of qualified at-sea observers, particularly in light of recent media attention on incidents of harassment in the industry.” 

Archipelago is among the beneficiaries of that $2 million program as it works toward growing its electronic monitoring operations. Scott Buchanan, Archipelago’s vice president for operations, declined to comment for this article.

“We were disappointed with how Archipelago was presented in the [earlier] articles and as such do not wish to provide you with any information or our perspective on the ongoing changes being made as monitoring programs and fisheries continue to evolve,” he wrote in an email.

MacDuffee and Mitchell are wary of the shift toward electronic monitoring, though not opposed to it.

The observer companies that failed to deal with observer harassment, after all, are the same companies that will be handling the electronic data. And it will all be overseen by DFO, which has spent a decade turning a blind eye to problems in the industry.

“Are they suddenly going to start being super transparent? I don’t think so,” Mitchell says. “I think it’s more a move to avoid accountability.” 

We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?
We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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