A skipper accused by several fisheries observers of abuse aboard his trawlers has resigned his position as a director of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, The Narwhal has learned.
Kelly Andersen resigned on May 19, two weeks after The Narwhal published an investigation into workplace harassment within the at-sea fisheries observer program.
According to his resignation letter, Andersen said he held the director position for more than 20 years. He did not respond to a request for a comment.
Andersen was one of several skippers named by more than a dozen whistleblowers who reported facing threats and harassment while gathering data at sea. They said that led them to underreport bycatch pulled up in bottom trawler nets, resulting in a vastly underestimated quantity of wasted and illegally harvested fish.
“Recently, I have unfortunately become the focal point of negative discourse within and around the industry I have grown up in and care deeply for,” Andersen wrote in the May 19 letter obtained by The Narwhal.
During the reporting for the investigation, Fisheries and Oceans Canada told The Narwhal that an investigation into allegations made against Andersen is ongoing.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada to prioritize harassment response in new policy
In a May 14 emailed statement to The Narwhal following publication of the investigation, a spokesperson with Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the department “takes the issue of harassment of at-sea observers very seriously, and follows up on every reported instance.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been holding annual face-to-face meetings to discuss how the observer program can be improved, the spokesperson said, adding, “most recently, these discussions have included how best to report and handle instances of harassment.”
The department is now prioritizing harassment reporting and response as part of a renewal of policies related to the program, the spokesperson said. New policy is expected to be revealed later this year.
“DFO [Fisheries and Oceans Canada] does not and will not tolerate harassment of at-sea observers. Every worker has the right to a safe and healthy workplace.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada declined to provide any specific information regarding ongoing or previous investigations into harassment of observers.
The coronavirus pandemic has led to a temporary hold on the at-sea observer program; observers were removed from the ships in April, though fishing is still taking place. The United States has done the same.
The industry is using the time as a chance to pilot its electronic monitoring systems, which they argue are immune to the kinds of harassment that might cause an observer to under-report fish.
Long-term problems for observers
In the original investigation The Narwhal detailed three specific cases in which Andersen was accused of pressuring observers, usually with threats and other forms of harassment, to encourage under-reporting of bycatch.
Jon Eis, a former observer who spoke with The Narwhal, said he felt so threatened by Andersen he took to locking his cabin door at night.
Since the investigation was published, several other observers have come forward to corroborate the findings of the investigation and share similar experiences. Many of the observers who came forward to speak with The Narwhal said Archipelago Marine Research, the company responsible for providing observers to industrial trawlers under the federal at-sea observer program, did little to intervene when complaints of harassment were made.
The company has denied that it fails to support its employees who bring forward such allegations.
In an email sent to staff, later obtained by The Narwhal, the company also denies that the issue of bycatch under-reporting is widespread.
“Mr. Thompson’s [sic] article is informative and entertaining, but it does not represent the fishery and at-sea observer program as a whole. Nor does it provide any recognition for the hard work done by our staff to collect independent and reliable data for the fishery,” the company wrote.
“It is very much focused on exposing something some individuals feel is wrong within the program without understanding if the examples presented actually represent a widespread, chronic problem.”
A freedom of information request for documents related to enforcement of at-sea observer laws and regulations submitted to Fisheries and Oceans Canada yielded a heavily redacted 37-page document. (The Narwhal is pursuing a complaint with the Office of the Information Commissioner of Canada regarding the redactions.)
The documents contained references to court summonses for crew of the Raw Spirit — a bottom trawling ship co-owned by Andersen, Jim Pattison’s Canadian Fishing Company and two others — dating back to August of 2017, more than a year before Eis submitted an official complaint with the federal department.
The Canadian Fishing Company has not responded to a request for comment regarding its ongoing business relationship with Andersen following his resignation from the trawl society.
In an email to members announcing Andersen’s resignation, the society’s executive director, Bruce Turris, thanked Andersen “for his unwavering support” and “the many valuable contributions he has made as a director over the last two decades.”
Turris was contacted for comment but did not immediately respond.
In a letter to The Narwhal responding to the investigation, and copied to a wide swath of fisheries stakeholders including company executives and even boat brokers, Turris disputed many of the allegations of unsustainable practices that were presented.
“Observer programs don’t guarantee sustainability, they provide data used in managing a fishery sustainably,” he wrote. “Conservation of groundfish is much more robust than portrayed in the article.”
Turris cited many of the measures that have been taken to help improve the sustainability of the trawl fishery, such as the closure of the 800 Line in Haida Gwaii, the mandatory retention of rockfish and the implementation of a program to protect glass sponge reefs.
The latter program involves a system to avoid damaging the reefs by making certain areas out of bounds and reporting any areas where sponges are caught accidentally.
Observers have reported multiple instances of the glass sponge reef program being ignored or undermined.