Jordan: When you’re out on the open ocean, far from land, it’s easy to feel alone. Even if you’re on a big fishing trawler when you’re the only person on board with the authority to report the captain, it can feel even lonelier. But every trawler in Canada needs an observer. And every one of those observers has to make a choice. How rigid should they be with the future of the captain and crew on one hand and the damage done by overfishing on the other. And that choice gets even harder when the captain makes it clear exactly what he expects from you. And then what do you do? Do you play it by the book knowing that you’re now the person on board risking everyone’s job and pretend it’s still business as usual, or do you cut your reports down just enough fudge the numbers enough to please the skipper and keep the peace. This is a decision observers say they should never have to make and one they also claim the department of fisheries and oceans hasn’t taken seriously when it’s been reported. Some of them say they felt harassed, some have felt unsafe, and in other places around the world, observers have disappeared today. The story of an investigation into what happens way out at sea, when the need for truth and the need for personal safety collide. First though, a very quick update on Covid-19 in Canada as we head into a Victoria Day weekend, that will be very different than it’s been in the past. Claire?
Claire: Yeah, definitely a different kind of may long weekend than we’re used to. This past Wednesday, a member of the world health organization said that Covid-19 may never go away. Here’s what prime minister Justin Trudeau had to say about that.
Justin Trudeau (News Clip): Covid-19 will be one of those things that creates changes in our society. Our responsibility as a society, as governments, is to try and figure out how to minimize the negative impacts of those changes while maximizing the safety of Canadians. There will be adjustments, but reopening national parks, for example, on June 1st means that we know that you can’t prevent Canadians from going outside when the weather is nice. You just have to help them. Do it safely.
Claire: As you heard in that clip, national parks will start to reopen June 1st but Trudeau says this will happen in phases. Not every park will reopen at once, and there will of course be limitations within the parks. Ontario announced its first stage of reopening. Some businesses can reopen this weekend and more businesses and some services will be allowed to resume on Tuesday, and as the province gradually reopens, it’s also expanding testing guidelines for Covid-19 so that anyone with any symptoms can get tested. Alberta’s also starting the first phase of its relaunch plan, but not for the whole province. It will be slower in Calgary and in Brooks. Businesses are set to start reopening in those cities on May 25th. As of Thursday evening, 73,401 cases of Covid-19 in Canada with 5,576 deaths.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the big story. Jimmy Thomson is a freelance reporter who investigated this and it was an in depth investigation for the Narwhal. Hello, Jimmy. Hi. Why don’t we start with the basics for those of us who may not be familiar with the West coast or the fisheries industry. So what is trawl fishing and why does it need to have independent observers on each boat?
Jimmy: Yeah, so trawl fishing can actually take a number of forms, but what I focused on was bottom trawling. So bottom trawling is a process of fishing where they will essentially drag a net along the bottom, and it’s a pretty big net and it gets dragged for quite a long time. So it gets a lot of fish in that net. And the reason it needs observers is it, well it didn’t always have observers, through the eighties, trawling became bigger and bigger in BC, and they had a total allowable catch that they were going over year after year after year, and eventually in 1996 DFO jumped in and said, ‘okay, no, not anymore, we’re actually shutting you down’. They shut the whole fishery down for, I think about six months and when it reopened they said, ‘you’re going to have an observer on every boat’, and that observer was there to monitor what’s being pulled in, what’s being thrown over the side, what kind of species are coming on board, that kind of thing. So the observer was essentially DFO’s eyes and ears on the trawlers.
Jordan: So tell me about like what that process looks like and what the observers do. They haul this fish onboard and then what? Put me there.
Jimmy: Yeah, okay, so picture this, you’re an observer. You’re a young just out of university, often a biology grad or someone who’s really keen on fish and you’ve gone out onto a boat, onto a trawler and you’re way off shore. You can’t even see the coast anymore. And the only people around you are the crew and the, and the skipper of this boat. And your job is to be the cops, right? You’re there to watch what they bring in, whether it’s legal, whether they’re bringing in the amount that they say they are, whether they’re bringing in the amount that they’re allowed to bring in, whether the species that they’re bringing in are allowed. So some species can be trawled for and some species can’t. So halibut, for example, is a really delicious high value fish that you’re not allowed to catch by bottom trawling and it lives on the bottom, so you catch it all the time. So they’re supposed to be avoiding areas where they might be catching more halibut. They’re supposed to be throwing those halibut back over boards.
Jordan: Let me break in for one second and cause I’m curious just to ask, why aren’t you allowed to trawl for halibut, for instance?
Jimmy: Probably it’s because halibut are such a high value fish that if you were to trawl for them, everyone would just scoop them all out of the ocean you wouldn’t have much left. I’m not a DFO policy analyst so I can’t really tell you that.
Jordan: No worries I’m sorry I interrupted you. You can go back. So tell me again about what it looks like.
Jimmy: Okay, so we’re back on the boat. We’re way off shore. Picture this, so a big net gets pulled in and it’s just teaming with halibut and the captain says, look the other way, the captain says you didn’t see that because that could shut down his boat. It could put all of his people out of work. It could cost him or her tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. If they kill a lot of fish, they’re not allowed to kill, that could be really bad for them. So you as this idealistic young observer who’s just gone on and can easily be maybe persuaded that what you saw wasn’t what you actually saw, it’s a lot easier to look the other way. And so some people do and some people don’t. And that’s sort of the crux of this story.
Jordan: So from there tell me where your investigation into this began and how you went about it.
Jimmy: Well, this started with a tip. We had a supporter of The Narwhal, I’m not actually part of The Narwhal, but The Narwhal had a supporter call in to update her credit card information. And while they were on the phone, she mentioned that she had heard from a fisheries observer who had just left in disgust because he was so frustrated with how things had gone. He had been in the industry for a few years, so it wasn’t his first trip, he had seen a lot and he thought, this isn’t right. I got in touch with him and it was a good conversation. He was very passionate. He was very convinced that he was right. And I wasn’t convinced necessarily, because he’s just one person and people get out of industries and jobs for all kinds of reasons. I know I’ve quit jobs for a lot worse reasons than I would later claim that that I had quit for. So this guy put me then in touch with someone else, and then that person put me in touch with someone else. And again, I went down the chain and after I’d spoken with about four or five people, I thought, okay, this is real. There’s a lot of people with a lot of experience in this industry who have seen this over and over and over again, and there are patterns emerging here. So at that point I started finding people on my own, to really try and confirm that I could independently verify this story. And I did. It’s pretty common knowledge within the observer industry that not everyone experiences this. And not every trip, and not every skipper and not every crew. But certainly every observer knows that there are pressures that exist on observers that shouldn’t be there.
Jordan: You collected a number of these stories and we don’t have time to tell all of them, but why don’t you give me an idea through one of them and tell me about the Raw Spirit and and what your source Jon Eis says took place on that boat.
Jimmy: Okay, so the Raw Spirit is a factory trawler. Some people call it a freezer boat. The industry would call it a freezer boat. But it’s basically a giant version of the trawlers that have existed for a lot longer than that. It’s a mechanized version of that, and it’s much more efficient and it’s got a lot more capacity. So they’ll fish for maybe a million pounds of fish in a single trip. And this one, the Ross spirit, arrived from Norway in 2013 was bought by Kelly Anderson, who’s the skipper who played a pretty central role in this story. He bought it along with Jim Pattison, who is one of the richest people in BC and one of the richest people in Canada. And another couple of investors as well. So they bought this boat and my contact, my source, Jon Eis, was onboard in 2018. He had actually avoided factory trawlers because he had heard the stories about them, but he ended up on the Raw Spirit. And pretty much right away, things started to look not great. So they were fishing off Haida Gwaii on what’s called the 800 line, which is just an area South of Haida Gwaii. And they were pulling up a lot of halibut. He was saying maybe one in every 10 fish that came up was a halibut, which is not good. And he was telling the captain, this is a lot. And the captain saying don’t worry about it. That’s not what you’re seeing. So he kept on writing down what he was seeing, and the captain kept on hammering the same spot over and over and over again, the same halibut-rich place that he was just pulling up all of this illegal fish and he starts to get really agitated. The captain starts threatening and yelling and screaming at Jon, the guy who was writing this down, who’s even only writing down 25% of what he’s seeing because he’s so afraid. He knows that if he writes down a hundred percent, well, he doesn’t know what would happen, but he certainly was afraid of what would happen. So he’s writing down 25% and even then Kelly Andersen is screaming at him. He starts locking the door to his cabin at night because he’s terrified. So they get back to port and he files a complaint with his company and he feels like his company kind of brushes him off. And he files a complaint directly with DFO, which is not actually what’s supposed to happen, but he just felt like his company wasn’t gonna do anything about it. And DFO tells him, you know, don’t talk to the press and we’ll take care of it. He keeps following up with them over the following months and they say, my hands are tied. At one point they said, my hands are tied. And when I contacted them, which was about a year after this had all happened, they said, investigation is ongoing. So I don’t know how long these investigations are supposed to happen or are supposed to take. It seems like a long time, but maybe that’s how long it takes to do this.
Jordan: Why would this be such a hot button topic? What’s at stake here in keeping this quiet and what’s the scale of this going on?
Jimmy: That’s a good question. The BC trawl fishery takes great pride in the steps it’s taken since 1996. They’re really proud of what they’ve done, and in some ways they should be. On paper this is a really good system. What it says on paper is we’re watching every net that comes up and we’re recording it, and we’re passing that information on to government scientists, and we’re making catch decisions and quota decisions based on that data. And it’s a really robust system that’s resistant to tampering and all this kind of thing. People come from all over the world to see this system in action. It is probably better than what’s happening in a lot of places, but you know, do we really want to be comparing ourselves to Mozambique fisheries? Right? The stakes here are that maybe hundreds of millions of pounds of fish are being wasted this way. We don’t know exactly, and that’s the problem is that the data is so unreliable. We don’t know what’s being wasted. We don’t know what’s going unaccounted for. That’s the whole thing. But it could be in the hundreds of millions of pounds that are being wasted without anyone ever even knowing about it. So we can’t correct it. So that’s kind of what’s at stake. We’re doing a lot of damage and we don’t know what damage we’re doing.
Jordan: And once you had collected stories, like the one you just told, whether, differing in degrees of severity or whatnot, but you had a bunch of examples, where did you take them and what kinds of comment did you get back?
Jimmy: So after I had spoken with the observers and several fishermen as well, who kind of confirmed that this was a pattern. I brought them to Archipelago Marine Resources who had told their observers not to talk to me. Thankfully, some of them did. But I talked to two executives at Archipelago who didn’t quite deny that this could be happening. They did deny that they don’t support their employees. I should make that clear. But the pattern that I heard was that not only is this happening out there, but when they tell Archipelago that this is happening to them, nothing happens. So Archipelago also said that it’s possible that these people feel that way because they never closed the loop with them. They never came back to them and said, here’s what happened. They fired this guy, or this boat was given a fine or whatever. But they also weren’t able to provide me with any examples of fines or other sanctions that had occurred as a result of these reports.
Jordan: What about the fisheries department and when you went to the government, what happened?
Jimmy: DFO did not provide an interview. DFO, in what I have come to believe is pretty common government practice, just doesn’t like to engage with the media directly. They still haven’t gotten back to me even after I sent them the story and said, I’d like comment on this and this and this. And I still haven’t heard back from them. DFO basically just said, we have investigations underway, and as a result of that, we can’t comment. I also filed freedom of information requests, so I’m still waiting for that. The government and Archipelago together presented a pretty solid wall. I should say Archipelago did provide me with that interview and they were very forthcoming when they could be. It’s just that they’re bound by a lot of confidentiality, or so they say. And then the trawl industry as well provided me with a lot of information and they sort of gave me all that background on how the, the system came to be and how they feel about it today.
Jordan: What about the skippers? What did they say for themselves and did you talk to Andersen in particular, the guy you mentioned.
Jimmy: Yeah. I called Anderson, I emailed him, I sent him text messages. I got one text back, or, sorry, I guess it was an emailed statement. And that’s all I got. And it basically said that he regrets Jon Eis’ interpretation of his experience, I think is how he said it, which is the most non-apology apology. It was very carefully worded, probably lawyered statement, not admitting any culpability and said that he supports efforts to make the industry more sustainable, essentially. So, yeah he never engaged directly with any of the accusations that were levelled against him, which came from a lot of different people. A lot of people, including fishermen, not just observers.
Jordan: Did any of the skippers talk openly about this being a problem?
Jimmy: Yeah. A guy named Brian Dickens talked to me very openly. He hates that this happens. It makes the industry look really bad, it undermines all the work that they’ve done. And some people within the industry really do care about it being sustainable. They want their kids to be able to fish and, when they sell that fish to the grocery store, they want to be proud that they did it. So they’re really pissed off. Kelly Andersen is a director of The Trawl Association, so that’s embarrassing for them too. They say, ‘why is this guy who’s known throughout the industry as being kind of a pirate, why is he representing us and why is he speaking on our behalf?’ But I also want to say it’s not just a couple of bad actors. I did hear that there is a pretty wide group of skippers and crews that have this same interpretation of how you’re supposed to treat an observer and it’s not a good one.
Jordan: Has this come to a head anywhere in the industry? These people must meet and discuss these kinds of things right? And it seems from what you’re telling me this is pretty well acknowledged.
Jimmy: Yeah. There was a meeting, there’s a pretty frequent meeting that happens of the Groundfish Trawl Advisory Committee, which is their industry and government group. And they met in February. I tried to get into the meeting, but was not allowed. I wasn’t standing outside the door. I tried to get permission to attend the meeting and they didn’t want me to come. But then I think it’s fair they didn’t want to have a media person looking over their shoulder while they’re trying to make these decisions. But they were talking about it at that meeting. I have the minutes, and it was a big deal that, that this was about to come out, and that people were talking about it. So they know and they are trying to fix it. I’m not convinced though that the things that they’re going to fix it with are necessarily that much better solutions to those problems.
Jordan: What do you mean by that? What are they proposing?
Jimmy: So some of the things are pretty interesting. For example a hundred percent retention of rockfish. If you catch a rockfish, you need to keep it and sell it. Even if it’s not supposed to be caught. And that’s a way of saying you can’t… a rockfish when it comes up from deep, it’s not gonna survive probably cause it’s got a swim bladder and that just kind of pokes out through its mouth. The fish isn’t going to go back to where it was and what it was doing before. So a hundred percent retention of rockfish is one thing that’s going to happen, and that would prevent the pressure from being on the observer to report that rockfish. Another thing is installing more electronic monitoring. So during Covid, they’ve actually taken observers off the boats entirely, which is kind of alarming on its face, but they’re replacing it in a lot of cases with electronic monitoring. So that’s sensors all over the boat that say when the gear is moving and, and when it’s kind of coming back onto the boat and where they are. But it also includes cameras. So that could be great because the cameras are audited. Maybe 10%, 25% of their of the footage is looked at by a human. And if that doesn’t match up with the log books, then they get audited for the whole trip. And that can cost a lot of money. So there’s an incentive there, but then maybe the camera malfunctions or maybe there’s a salt spray that just never gets washed off because the person who was supposed to wash off the salt spray off the camera just forgot to do it. Suddenly you’ve got a camera that the crew is entirely in charge of, even if they’re not allowed to tamper with it. You never know what can happen in the high seas. Speaking for the observers, I think I would prefer to have a camera tossed overboard than a person. And there have been a number of observers worldwide, six to 10 observers worldwide that have gone missing in the last several years because they’re out there on their own.
Jordan: Any of them in Canada?
Jimmy: No, thankfully, to my knowledge, no observers have have gone missing in Canada.
Jordan: You kind of answered my next question, which was going to be about what’s happened since Covid-19 began, and these observers have been pulled off. But my other question is what happens next when presumably these restrictions are lifted and observers are allowed back on the boats. Are we going to see this fight all over again? Will these temporary measures become permanent? Did anybody give you a sense of if this is sort of the trial for a new normal or a temporary measure?
Jimmy: Yeah. A lot of this electronic monitoring stuff especially, has been looked at before all of this. When I was doing these interviews, when I was doing this research, it was before Covid was really a thing, and they were already talking about it back then. This is sort of a test for it and maybe it will become permanent. I think it’s very likely that the electronic monitoring will become permanent. The rockfish retention. They closed the 800 line, that area South of Haida Gwaii where all this happened on the Raw Spirit. Yeah. I think it’s definitely not unlikely that a lot of this stuff will carry on afterwards. Since this story has come out, I’ve heard from a lot of observers who say I didn’t get the whole story. And I think that that’s entirely likely, from a lot of different perspectives that I didn’t get the whole story because it’s a long story, but it’s not long enough to catch all of this. So I’ve been doing some followup reporting that I’m really excited about. And there will be more coming. There’s been some really disturbing, but also interesting and important stuff that’s come to my attention since this story came out.
Jordan: Are you going to just let me go without even giving me a taste of that?
Jordan: Fair enough. My very last question then, and thank you for taking the time, is, in the long run, just cause as I went through your story and as I’ve been talking to you, the sense of, of how much illegal fish just comes up in the course of doing business was kind of staggering to me. As somebody who obviously knows nothing about the industry, it seems like it’s so unavoidable that in the long run it might not be tenable to just continue to fish this way. What is the future of this industry?
Jimmy: Yeah. The numbers are pretty staggering, I agree. Jon estimated that throughout his career, he’s probably underestimated by about 80% so that means if everyone is like him and he was in the industry for 15 years, and he’s not a pushover. He’s a pretty strong willed guy. So, if that’s the norm, then this industry is doing a lot more harm than it’s letting on. It’s not necessarily that this industry couldn’t possibly be sustainable in the longterm, but it’s that if we don’t know what is being done out there, if we don’t know what the impacts are, how are we supposed to govern it and how are we supposed to know if we should be eating rockfish or if we should be eating turbot or if we should be eating pollock? These things, a lot of them are recommended by Ocean Wise and by these sort of ratings agencies that say. ‘we know because the observers tell us, you know how this fishery happens, that this is a sustainable fish.’ But if what the observers are telling the government and telling these agencies is wrong, then how do you know what’s good? How do you know what’s safe and what’s sustainable?
Jordan: I guess that’s the question that will probably have to be answered at the highest levels of the government.
Jimmy: Yeah. Hopefully DFO gets back to me on that one.
Jordan: We’ll see. All right. Thank you so much, Jimmy for your time.
Jimmy: Thank you. I appreciate it.
Jordan: Jimmy Thomson reported this piece for the narwhal. That was The Big Story. If you would like more, thebigstorypodcast.ca home of all our episodes, we are approaching 400 of them. You can also find all our episodes on any podcast platform you like, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, pick one. You can rate us, you can review us and you can write to us if you would like. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers, Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor and I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a great long weekend. Stay safe wherever you are. Enjoy the sunshine hopefully, and we’ll talk Tuesday.
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