- Edison Valencia, a fisheries observer, was working on board an Ecuadoran fishing vessel the last time anyone saw him.
- Observers collect data on vessels’ fishing activity that is essential for monitoring the industry’s sustainability.
- Valencia disappeared on March 6, 2018, and his case remains unsolved.
- He is one of more than 20 observers who have disappeared or died on board a fishing vessel since 1983.
This story is a reporting collaboration between Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora.
At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, March 6, 2018, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Benner Valencia picked up his phone. The person at the other end told him that his second son, biologist Edison Geovanny Valencia Bravo, had disappeared on board the tuna vessel Don Ramón, owned by the Ecuadoran company Delipesca.
The second thing they told him was that his son had jumped from the ship. He didn’t believe it. He still doesn’t believe it now, four years after that evening when he got the terrible news.
Valencia was a fisheries observer, a key role for ensuring the sustainability of marine resources. The job requires keeping detailed records of fishing activities and catches and submitting them to the authorities.
Valencia had been doing this job on the Delipesca ship since January 2018. According to a recent study in the journal Science Advances, Delipesca is one of 20 companies responsible for a third of the world’s reported industrial fishing-related crimes.
Benner Valencia, his father, agreed only reluctantly to an interview to talk about what, in his view, happened to his son. He said he had lost faith in the system and felt frustrated that after four years, there haven’t been any advances in the case and it’s still in the prior investigation phase at the Ecuadoran attorney general’s office.
Benner Valencia filed the document to declare the presumed death of Edison with the Ecuadoran Judicial Council on June 23, 2021. This is a procedure to make the death of a disappeared person official.
The last time Benner and Edison spoke was on March 3, 2018, three days before the call telling of Edison’s disappearance. According to Benner, he said he was fine and the fishing efforts would take a few days longer because the vessel still needed to catch a few more tons of fish. He also said he’d had an argument with the captain a few days before after complaining about his sleeping arrangements.
“He told me it was a bad mattress,” Benner Valencia said. “Apparently that caused frictions on board. They told him that was the only thing they had and no other observer had complained.”
Benner Valencia also said he’s received other calls from “people who pretended to be journalists” to get information from him and from whom he never heard again.
Mongabay Latam and Ecuadoran online news outlet La Barra Espaciadora had access, through Valencia’s attorney, to an expert report by the Ecuadoran Army’s National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces, written after Valencia’s disappearance. The report says there’s no record of “documents that can be used to offer a bigger analysis of the casualty,” such as a national traffic permit, a document to certify minimum security, a certificate of safety inspection, or a fishing permit.
All vessels are required to have these documents. The report concludes that the captain and the owner of the vessel are responsible for negligence, including lack of safety on board and little attention paid to the biologist whom they saw “acting weirdly” and who had said “someone wanted to hurt him.”
Guardians of sustainability
“I think they look at me as a toad on the ship,” said a fisheries observer who asked to remain anonymous. He is an observer with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). Twenty-one countries participate in the intergovernmental organization, which manages tuna fisheries in international waters of the Pacific Ocean, from Canada to Chile.
The IATTC works with 70% of Ecuadoran observers, while the other 30% work with Probecuador, the national observer program. Probecuador hires experts to exclusively supervise the work of tuna vessels operating under the Ecuadoran flag, and then reports the data to Ecuador’s Undersecretariat of Fisheries and the IATTC. Edison Valencia was working for this program.
The work day starts at 5 a.m. and the observer takes notes on every fishing maneuver: the coordinates where the crew sets the nets, how many tons they capture, the size of the fish, and their reproductive state. It’s an essential task, said Pilar Solís, deputy director at the Public Institute for Aquaculture and Fisheries Research, because the data allow her agency to analyze a species and the areas where it’s captured. “With this information we decide if fishing can continue or if it needs to stop to preserve the resource,” she said.
But the observers also have to monitor everything that happens during the fishing efforts. While they aren’t inspectors and they can’t impose sanctions, they need to note any infraction they observe and inform the authorities. For example, if the crew doesn’t comply with protocols to release animals that get tangled in the nets by accident, like turtles, manta rays, sharks or dolphins; if they throw waste into the sea; if they use unauthorized fishing methods; if they throw dead fish back into the sea; if there are unauthorized transshipments from one vessel to another; or if any crime is committed.
“I’m there to see that no rules are broken, that the animals are treated well, that [the crew] doesn’t pollute the ocean and that they do responsible work,” the anonymous IATTC observer said. “Because having a sustainable future, to the extent that’s possible, for the new generations of fishers depends on that.”
In fact, according to Ecuador’s Organic Law for the Development of Aquaculture and Fisheries, the observer reports are the basis on which to start sanctions processes and can be used as evidence. That’s why the IATTC observer feels like a toad on the ship. “I need to pay attention to everything and that obviously must be a nuisance,” he said.
But their responsibilities don’t end there. Andrés Roche, manager of the Ecuadoran trade association Protuna, said the observers’ work allows the industry to obtain sustainability certificates because they confirm that the product is captured following all the rules. “Fishing without an observer isn’t well-accepted in the international market,” Roche said. “It’s a very important job.”
He also said, however, that safety is not guaranteed for those who carry it out.
A dangerous job
According to Benner Valencia, his son was a biologist passionate about monitoring the sea. He had studied at the Polytechnic University in Guayaquil, and in 2016, a year after graduating, was already working as an observer.
“He was very ethical, very loyal, very professional. He loved his job,” his father said. He was thinking about specializing; he wanted to do a master’s program when he got back home after that trip in 2018.
The news of Edison Valencia’s disappearance “sent the entire university into mourning,” his friend and colleague Álvaro Mora said. Valencia was “attentive, friendly, and helped anyone who needed it,” Gabriela Palma, another colleague, said. “He could become friends with anyone.”
That’s why many took to the streets to demand answers about his whereabouts. They knew the job was risky and feared Edison Valencia had joined those who never return from the sea.
The Association of Professional Observers (APO), an international NGO whose mission is to strengthen observer programs, keeps a record of people from around the world who have died or disappeared doing this job. Edison Valencia is one of the 22 people on the list, which includes cases that date back to 1983. Of these, the APO categorizes 18 as unsolved.
On Sept. 10, 2015, Keith Davis, a U.S. citizen, disappeared from the Japanese-owned, Panama-flagged reefer vessel Victoria No. 168. This type of ship collects the catches of different ships at sea and takes it to port. Davis was working as an IATTC observer, and the last time anyone saw him was while the vessel was loading the catch of the Taiwanese-owned, Vanuatu-flagged Chung Kuo No. 818 in international waters off Peru.
The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) states that this activity, called transshipment, is one of the main drivers of illegal fishing. Catches from multiple vessels get mixed in the reefer’s hold and it’s possible to launder it or make an illegal catch pass as legal. According to the APO, “Panama closed the investigation without official reports and Chung Kuo No. 818 was never called to port or investigated, although there could have been people onboard identified as suspects for a possible investigation.”
More recently, in March 2020, Eritara Aati Kaierua, a fisheries observer from Kiribati, appeared dead in his cabin on the Taiwan-flagged tuna boat Win Far No.636. He was found beaten and bloody.
In December 2021, Nuru Gillen died on board a Senegal-flagged vessel. He worked for the Gambian Ministry of Fishing and Water Resources, but officials didn’t give any information about his death.
In August of the year Edison Valencia disappeared, the IATTC signed a resolution that aimed to improve the security of observers at sea through an emergency action plan. The document establishes, among other things, the actions to follow in the event of death or disappearance of an observer on board. Ecuador adopted that protocol for all the observer programs in the country.
The protocol says, for example, that if an observer disappears, the vessel’s flag state must ensure that the vessel immediately stops all fishing activities and begins search-and-rescue operations, which must continue for at least 72 hours unless the observer is found. It also requires the flag state to ensure that the ship goes to the closest port so that an investigation can start, and that the captain provides a report and keeps any potential evidence and the observer’s belongings. Additionally, if the observer dies, the body needs to remain as well-preserved as possible inside the ship so that an autopsy can be conducted.
“Observers risk their lives to provide the data necessary for fisheries managers to sustainably manage fisheries. Their protection is essential to their nations’ food security … Yet, many observers are forgotten by the very agencies who are responsible for their welfare,” reads the APO’s introduction to its list of dead and disappeared observers.
Ernesto Altamirano, the coordinator of the IATTC observer program, said that compliance with the emergency protocol “is aired in the meetings of the committee in charge.” But he said he isn’t informed about the details of observers’ working conditions as they aren’t employed by the organization but rather are “independent contractors,” he said.
According to Altamirano, the IATTC observer program is part of another agreement, the International Dolphin Conservation Program, and the IATTC only coordinates the uniformity of the data-collecting process and the adequate sharing of data with bodies like Ecuador’s National Fisheries Institute.
Probecuador did not respond Mongabay Latam’s request for an interview for this story.
Edison Valencia’s disappearance
The last time someone saw Edison Valencia alive was on March 5, 2018, at 8:30 p.m., on the ship’s deck, according to the report from the National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces that Mongabay Latam and La Barra Espaciadora accessed. But it wasn’t until the following day that the crew initiated the search for him that would last until March 8. The summary document says the ship’s authorities delayed submitting a copy of the logbook that Valencia used to keep a record of the ship’s activities, a delay that “prevented completion of technical due diligence.”
However, the family’s lawyer is more direct. He said the company never submitted that logbook. Delipesca didn’t reply to this reporting team’s questions by the time this article was published on Mongabay Latam. Raúl Paladines, a company manager this reporting team contacted on his personal phone, didn’t respond either.
The National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces report also says that during examination, the captain said he had seen Edison Valencia “troubled” and “as if he was lost,” and that Valencia was “indicating that someone wanted to hurt him, but he never mentioned any names.” Other members of the crew agreed with this version and said that in the last days, the observer had “an odd attitude, staying away from everyone.” According to these statements, Valencia insisted that someone “wanted to hurt him, kill him, and throw him into the water,” and that he had said he suffered from schizophrenia, which his father denies. His colleagues, the people who yelled in the streets and on the internet after his disappearance, also deny he ever had this type of problem.
For Gabriela Palma, Valencia’s colleague at university, hearing that members of the crew said he was “acting odd” was confusing because “he was never depressed, acting sad, just the opposite,” she said. She said she was also very surprised that someone said Edison Valencia suffered from schizophrenia because “he would never have passed the psychological test that observers need to take.”
The report by the National Directorate of Aquatic Spaces concluded that “there are sufficient arguments to establish that there was a premeditated action by the disappeared person.” Simply put, that it was a suicide. But it also states that the captain didn’t take “any preventive action to monitor the observer,” which makes him directly responsible due to the lack of precautions for the transit of people on deck at night. The fact, says the report, “shows negligence in planning the general operation of the vessel, including security rules.”
There’s more. The examination showed there was a fishing captain from Panama on board who wasn’t in the record of departure. There are no details about how this person made it to the vessel, but whatever the answer may be, the party responsible is the shipowner, according to the document — that is, Delipesca. And although it’s not a determining factor, “it could have contributed to the main cause of the casualty,” the report states.
Insecurity on board
Luis Soto, not his real name, is an observer with the Undersecretariat of Fisheries, an agency that not only receives data from Probecuador’s observer program but also hires its own observers to monitor a different type of fishing vessel, so-called all-purpose vessels that fish for shrimp and hake. He asked not to use his real name to avoid making the issues he’s faced at work even worse.
Soto said that in the little ships that he boards, between 12 and 15 people go in “like sardines,” sharing, for months, just two bathrooms and one shower, and tiny rooms with stacks of berths that are sometimes plagued with insects. He said he’ll never forget the time he tried to sleep in a bed just half a meter (20 inches) wide, a space so filthy that cockroaches were running over his body all night long.
“It’s exasperating, exhausting, frustrating,” he said, because he also had to deal with “rude captains” who want to “do whatever they feel like doing” and who are “willing to ignore the authority that the presence of an observer represents.” All of this, said Soto, for a $1,212 monthly salary that doesn’t include overtime or social security.
The IATTC observer who asked to have his identity protected earns a bit more: $43.22 per day when he’s on board a ship and $17.60 when he’s on land. When he isn’t out at sea, he works as an Uber delivery driver. “I need to find ways [to make money] because payments don’t wait and I have to eat,” he said.
He wrote from his cabin, a room measuring 2 by 2 meters (6.5 by 6.5 feet) around and 1.8 m (5.9 ft) high. This was one of the smallest ships he’d been assigned to. He had a mattress, a couple of power outlets, and two drawers and a shelf to keep his clothes, toiletries and working materials on.
The lack of space and comfort isn’t surprising. The logbooks this reporting team obtained from Peruvian observers after requesting them from the Peruvian Institute of the Sea often include similar descriptions of Ecuadoran ships. “It’s a very uncomfortable cabin. The ceiling is very close and you can’t even turn or change position,” reads one. “They didn’t give me any bed linens” and “I had to buy a blanket and bedsheets for my mattress,” reads another.
That’s why the anonymous IATTC observer, in spite of the small space, said he thought this trip wasn’t so bad. “I’ve been in ships in worse condition, where the bathrooms were completely dirty and the place to store food had cockroach nests,” he said.
He doesn’t have social security or life insurance, he said, and he pays for private health insurance. “The IATTC only covers accidents on board,” he said. When asked if he feels protected at work, he doesn’t hesitate to respond: “Sometimes not.”
“The big ships are safer, but middle and small-sized ships aren’t. They aren’t fit for bad weather. They don’t have medicines and if they have them, they are expired,” he said. “Also the food conditions on board aren’t the most suitable and one starts suffering.” Fruit and vegetables don’t last long, he said, and “when fishing efforts are delayed, there’s a scarcity of food to the point that you only eat rice with fish, fish with rice and rice with rice.”
Raúl Zambrano, also a pseudonym, is another Ecuadoran observer who works with Probecuador. He didn’t want to reveal his real identity for the same reasons as Luis Soto. He has been out at sea for periods as long as three months and said it’s difficult.
“We are alone against the world,” he said. Locked in open seas, isolated and looking at the same faces for months, the environment becomes unsustainable at times. “There are many frictions in the work we do. Fishers think we don’t do anything important and after some time start acting hostile around small details, like situations as simple as the cleanliness of the cabins or boredom,” Zambrano said.
That’s how one day David Norabuena, a Peruvian fisheries observer, lost his toiletries: his soap, toothpaste, shampoo and mouthwash. “Looking for them in the cabins, I found them in an Ecuadoran sailor’s shelf,” he wrote in his logbook.
“I had a problem with one of the Peruvian crew members,” says another observer. “He was continuously bothering me and badmouthing Peruvian biologists. I didn’t pay attention but he kept bothering me until I lost my patience,” he writes. “I told the captain, who gave orders for him to stop messing with the biologist, but when the sailor found out, he looked for me in the dining room and threatened me.”
Peruvian John Willian Rimac also received threats. In his logbook he writes that he witnessed fuel trafficking in April 2017. A white yacht approached the ship with an Ecuadoran flag where he’d been working for more than two months. The owner of the yacht came on the deck and after 30 minutes left with three barrels. As the observer had witnessed it, he received threats urging him to keep quiet. Luckily for him that was the end of it, but there hasn’t been a happy ending for everybody.
“This is the life at sea, it’s not for everyone,” Zambrano said. Being away from land for so long “triggers situations of violence” and “affects people on board psychologically.” He didn’t know Edison Valencia but said he thinks the testimonies of those who say he felt threatened and had warned that someone wanted to hurt him “aren’t inventions … there’s something we don’t know yet.”
The Observer Bill of Rights (OBR), written in the year 2000, establishes a plan to improve and strengthen the retention of observers, setting minimum requirements so they can do their work. However, the implementation is still vague, according to the APO, which serves as the document’s custodian. The group insists that rights, health, safety and welfare shouldn’t be neglected as monitoring efforts grow.
“Sustainable fishing certifications, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, lack criteria to protect observers or the metrics to gauge the effectiveness of observer program management. If observers are getting harassed they cannot collect unbiased data,” the APO says on its website.
Benner Valencia said he is convinced that his son is a victim, not a suicide case. His family never received restitution and he is still waiting to bury his son.
Illustrations by Kipu Visual.
Edits of the original story by Michelle Carrere.
Belhabib, D., & Le Billon, P. (2022). Fish crimes in the global oceans. Science Advances, 8(12). doi:10.1126/sciadv.abj1927