14th August 2020

IPNLF Managing Director Martin Purves shares his experience and knowledge on ‘The Role of a Fisheries Observer’ in the new report by Human Rights at Sea.

Observers can serve a purely scientific role onboard, or they can also act as enforcement officers. If they have strong and consistent regulatory back-up, they can halt illegal operations and cut short a voyage, costing all onboard but themselves money and reputation. In many cases, though, they would be risking their life to try. IPNLF Managing Director Martin Purves shares his experience and knowledge on ‘The Role of a Fisheries Observer’ in the new report by Human Rights at Sea.

Martin Purves

Martin Purves is a fisheries management and engagement specialist with over 20 years of field, government, consultancy, market and non-profit sector experience. He has been leading the work of the International Pole & Line Foundation (IPNLF) as Managing Director for the past four years. He started his career as a fisheries observer on fishing vessels in the Southwest Indian and Southern Oceans. He has spent over more than three years of his life at sea on many different types of fishing and research vessels and he has also trained, deployed and managed observers and developed training materials and trained fishery control officers. In the “Insight Briefing Note: The Role of a Fisheries Observer”, Purves discusses the job roles, tasks, and necessary skills, as well as dangers and risks that are connected with working as a fisheries observer

It takes a special type of person to be an observer. You need to be resilient and to be able to survive in an isolated environment; to be the outsider. You need to sometimes report things that you know are going to cause problems for the people that you’ve been with for maybe a month or more and who you’ve got to know quite well“. — Martin Purves


The essential task of observers is the collection of scientific data and report these back to authorities. Observers monitor, control and surveil, have a good understanding of the relevant fisheries regulations, know how to gather evidence, and also fully understand their mandate. Ideally, observers gain officer status and will have their own cabins. Often, they need to have a different nationality than the vessel’s flag, for independence purposes. Hence, observers, who are considered outsiders by the crew, as they change ships after almost every trip (to warrant independence), can face language and cultural inaccessibility, and might be confronted with different hygiene standards.

Having worked as a fisheries observer himself on fishing vessels in the Southwest Indian and Southern Oceans, Purves knows what is at stake for everyone onboard, but also how quickly a neutral situation can change to a threatening and unsafe one. If observers notice illegal activities happening onboard, danger often is imminent, as they can be faced with intimidation, threats, violence and, in the worst cases, murder. This is why it is crucial to have “proper support from the authorities and the company or organisation that deploy […] observers, [as they] can be very vulnerable.” Furthermore, better and more sensitive training is needed: “Their own safety should be paramount and ideally they should be equipped with their own communication tools, which would include a satellite phone in offshore seas fisheries and an EPIRB, a safety device that will alert authorities in the event of an emergency.”

Despite the challenges, there is also great potential for observers to work help the fisheries become more sustainable and minimizing their environmental impact. In the case of the Patagonian toothfish fishery in the Southern Ocean, where Purves was an observer earlier in his career, bycatch of seabirds, particularly albatross, was a huge environmental concern. The Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR) instituted a number of changes to legal fishing operations to reduce this, including limiting the setting out of longlines to after dusk and before dawn. The lines were weighted, so that they sank quickly, and a streamer line or tory line was deployed above the fishing line to further deter seabirds from diving in, getting hooked and drowning. “Many of the Captains had never done anything like this before, and there was pushback,” says Purves. “Sometimes observers would find themselves in a situation where the Captain simply refused to obey the rules. But it was very rewarding to see changes in behaviour taking place. Nowadays, there are no questions asked. It’s just done, and everyone accepts it. Some Captains have become champions of change and helped develop new techniques to protect the seabirds. It’s a changing mindset, but it does take time.”

Please find the complete Note here at the Human Rights at Sea website